I pulled Etude down, down, down endless flights of stairs: stairs that curled, stairs at right angles, stairs that cut a straight line, our feet quickstepping across stone. By turn after turn, we descended deep into the Keep of Solomon, ahead of the shouts and calls. If it had been a rational structure, we might have been caught. So too if The Masters had ever wandered from their high apartments, where each was lord, to explore the castle of which they were stewards. But they did not. Its passages were as unknown to them as their servants’ quarters and we were molested only by a trio of bald, brown-robed librarians, who heard the shouting and gathered to investigate. They tried to stop us, but I punched one squarely across the jaw, and he doubled over, clutching it. We made our way to an arched vestibule at the very bottom of the library which formed a small monument. A modest fountain gurgled at the center. Around it, braided columns twisted upward. Carved into their capitals were various artisans and craftsmen responsible the Keep—for its architecture or its interiors or its upkeep through the centuries. Each was depicted from the waist up and seemed to hold the weight of the Keep on their shoulders. Their heads were bent in struggle, their hands lifted to grasp the ceiling.
“STOP!” came a shout from above.
The six Masters and Mr. Morgan stood at various landings in the library. I don’t think any of them knew which of its winding paths led to that lowest of floors which I had discovered on my many perambulations.
Etude spun and saw no exit. “We are trapped!”
“I thought you were a shaman,” I accused. “Can’t you lead us through the shadow realm?”
“The veil must be pierced! I do not have my drum or flute. We have no ritual fire, no fall of water, and I do not know the spirits of this place!”
“But I do.”
I nodded to a dark arch, where a maid’s pale face—and nothing else—was barely visible, as if peering in from a wall of shadow. It hung there for only a moment before it retreated completely. I suspect she had come and gone so many times through the barrier, the veil between our world and the shadow-place, that it had been worn thin under that arch. Etude took my hand and with a silent look made it clear I should stay silent as well, and also that I should not let go.
It was as if we walked for hours through someone’s dark and anxious dreams. He navigated it as only a spiritwalker can, a man trained since birth not only to battle evil spirits but also to retrieve the lost souls of the sick. We emerged sometime later in a church in Italy. We gave the parish priest quite a fright as we stepped from the gap in a marble ensconcement at the back of the sepulcher. The clock tower in the square outside made it clear we had covered not only distance but time. It was then several hours earlier than when we had left. It was odd, I remarked, to think that right then, the two of us were also standing in the grand hall before the High Arcane. Could we not go and alter events? But he said no, that no matter which path we took from that church—train, automobile, helicopter—we would not be able to reach the Keep of Solomon one moment before we left, and so the paradox was always avoided.
“Such is the shape of space-time,” he said.
An older gentleman, a head shorter than me with long sideburns and a derby hat, shuffled by and made a face at our clothes, and again at Etude’s bare feet.
“I have heard that time is also money,” I said. “Perhaps you could find a way to render it so.” I lifted the legs of my cotton pants. “We need new clothes. We look like cultists in these outfits. Someone is bound to call the police.”
“Really?” he asked, looking down at his shirt. “I rather liked them.”
By means of a metal plaque at the door of the church, we discovered we were in Bergamo, in the foothills of the Alps. Like most Italian towns, its three- and four-story buildings were all of a similar design, and they lined the cobbled streets on both sides without gaps, as if forming the walls of a maze whose paths were never straight. Every avenue bent slightly and at odd times, seemingly for no reason other than to make sure you never quite knew where you were. It was a world unto itself and made to be so. It existed for the people who lived there and no one else. We found a quiet nook off a blind alley, too narrow for cars to pass, and sat under a cluster of hanging potted plants contemplating our options.
After a brief meditation, Etude raised his hands. Nothing happened at first, but before I could inquire as to his intentions, a rat appeared. It did nothing at first, as if it were afraid to approach. When a pair of pigeons landed nearby, the rat dared approach. It was followed in turn by all the animals of the city, not just rats and pigeons but kestrels, blackbirds, red foxes, bright finches, mouse-sized bats, feral cats—even wall-climbing lizards and a handful of frogs who hopped out of the gutter or from the mouths of dark pipes that fell from the rooftops. He asked them if they knew of the shiny metals and bits of paper that the humans traded, and they said yes. He asked if they might bring them, and they agreed. They seemed quite eager, in fact, for no one had bothered to talk to them in a very long time.
A brown rat the size of a small dog was the first to return. It walked headfirst down a vertical drain pipe carrying something in its teeth. It dropped it on the ground near Etude’s bare feet. It was a silver ring, quite large and heavily tarnished, with swirling bands at the top that held in place a sapphire of at least ten karats. Etude bowed to the rat and introduced himself and me. The rat was the wisest of his kind and told my friend he had come as soon as he heard the news, for it was rare anymore for people to honor the old ways—the ways before towns. He said that under that city many babies were starving, and Etude promised to knock over a rubbish bin near the river, which he did on our departure. The wise rat thanked him and left.
On and on it went. An animal appeared bearing a small treasure, something lost in the cracks and sewers, and asked a favor of the shaman, which he happily obliged. Most were quite simple. A kestrel had some plastic netting wrapped around its feet and tail and asked that it be removed, which I was happy to do. She left us a single diamond earring. A mother cat with Gucci collar brought a snarling kitten, a child from a recent litter—a matted, angry little menace of a cub that her owners had discarded. The mother had rescued it and kept it in secret, but it bit her and refused to eat. The young shaman wasted not a moment. He lifted the tiny terror by the scruff of its neck. It hissed and tried to bite him, but he merely moved his hands over it and spoke in a low voice. Even animals can be possessed, it seems. When the spirit was mesmerized, Etude passed his hand through the kitten’s body and brought it out in a closed fist. He whispered words to his fingers, then opened them and blew, and black ash scattered on the breeze. He returned the tiny kitten, now mewing plaintively to its mother, whose gave us her owner’s gold money clip, stuffed with neatly folded bills—so many, they could not be easily counted.
Before long, there was a line of animals stretching around the corner, and I felt like Etude and I were royalty, receiving gifts and entreaties from our noble subjects. We were polite to them, and they were polite to us. There was much bowing and speaking of ancient oaths. Soon, as word spread to the wilds that a true shaman had appeared, all semblance of order was dropped. As their numbers grew, the animals took to frenzy, agitated to excitement by the mere chance to see the strange bald man who remembered the ancient treaties, when men and beasts had warred and then made a pact. Birds of all stripes and colors swooped into the alley and dropped prizes. Bullfrogs croaked and hopped laboriously forward amid a tangle of rats and mice and more than a few voles who scurried so quickly that it was very hard to see them. Each deposited before the feet of the shaman the shiny detritus of the city—metals and papers and strange cut rocks.
As the animals swarmed, the pile at Etude’s feet grew, and he raised his arms in thanks. And so he stood amid the chaos, hands high, like the barefoot conductor of a great pastoral symphony. And then, just like that, it was done. Etude brought his hands down and the animals scurried away in all directions, as if they forgot that they could speak, and we were alone.
The pile we had amassed was mesmerizing. There were rings, bracelets, necklaces, loose gems and pearls, earrings, cash, and coins. Quite a bit of the jewelry was costume, of course, and amid the coins, I found several bottle caps, a penny slug, and some brass tokens to various laundromats and arcades. There was also a dog’s tag, three key chains (two with keys attached), and a ring fashioned from a nail. The birds had snagged a handful of restaurant receipts, presumably mistaking them for cash, including one bearing a freshly written phone number next to a hand-drawn heart. They had also pilfered someone’s grocery list and part of a newspaper crossword puzzle, all in Italian.
Even still, by the time the symphony reached its sudden climax, enough valuables had been delivered to fill a small chest. It was a genuine treasure. I had never seen a treasure before. Etude knelt and thrust a hand into it and lifted a full fist. Gold fell from between his fingers and clinked on the cobblestones.
“Will this do?” he asked.
I nodded meekly.
It took us some time to gather and sort it all. The crown jewel was an emerald necklace that I was certain dated to the 17th century. There was also a casino chip worth ten million lire and a Roman-era coin that we would later sell for a sizable sum.
“This looks old,” I said, raising another coin from the pile.
It was roughly the size of a silver dollar and irregularly circular. The markings, as well as the faces that had been stamped onto both sides, were worn with age. Etude went pale when he saw it and cursed softly in his mother tongue, a language I rarely heard pass his lips. It had been lost, we would discover, by an American GI during the liberation of Italy. His name was Albert Gallagher and he had wagered it in a card game against a fellow serviceman. Although no one knew it, Private Gallagher regularly cheated at cards with magic. In fact, he hadn’t lost a single game the entire war. Private Gallagher met his match, however, in a man from a different regiment, a mizzen from New Orleans named Paul Remi. Facing the prospect of losing everything, Private Gallagher played the penny. He was certain he couldn’t lose, for he knew there was no magic that could overturn it. But lose he did, to a seven-high straight, and after carrying that coin across the whole of North Africa and through seven near-death encounters, he watched it walk away in the pocket of the smiling Cajun, along with all his cash.
It was only later, after he was sober, that Private Gallagher realized the mizzen had cheated—but not with magic—simply with sleight of hand. He must have. There was no other explanation. Albert Gallagher was furious—furious that he had been beaten by a mizzen, and when finally he found Corporal Remi, they quarreled and Private Gallagher was killed. He had already spent the Moirai penny. In trying to take it back, Gallagher’s luck reversed, and he slipped and fell on his own knife—the knife that killed him twice.
As it happened, the Albert Gallagher who died that day in Italy, the day the coin was ripped from a pocket and lost down a gutter, was not the real Albert Gallagher from Ames, Iowa. The real Private Gallagher, aged 20, had lost his parents and two brothers to various unfortunate circumstances, and when the war broke out, felt that volunteering was the best way to honor their memory. However, before reporting for duty at an army base outside Mobile, Alabama, the young recruit thought he might see some of the country he was pledging his life to preserve. He hitched south and one night found himself playing a swell game of cards with some men in back of a service station. The men were smoking and drinking and shared stories of their lives. The young and inexperienced recruit let slip he was alone in the world—an innocent admission, but one that sealed his fate, for it meant there was no one alive who could identify him.
After the card game, Albert went to relieve himself by a tree, where one of the other players slit his throat with the knife. His body was buried in a bog, but not before his uniform and papers were taken. So it was the man who reported for duty in Mobile was not Albert Gallagher from Ames, Iowa, who knew nothing of magic, but one Wilbur Tuesday, aged 28, who was then wanted by the law in eight states. To keep him safe in wartime, his teenage wife, Livonia, who loved the violent, reckless Wilbur as nothing else in the world, gave her husband a gift, something she had stolen from her mother. She gave her Wilbur a silver penny, which she had been instructed not to touch. She gave it to her husband along with similar instructions. He was never to spend that penny nor even let it fall from his person—lest grave things happen. Of course, once Livonia’s mother, an old-timey witch from the hills of Tennessee, discovered it was missing, she had words with her daughter. The two fought, as mothers and daughters do—but also not as mothers and daughters do—and one of them wound up in the corn field.
Etude took the penny from my hands without a word.
We purchased new clothes, which suited me nicely, as well as train tickets to Milan, the nearest city, where I said I had an important errand. We found lodging at a small guest house and I went to the library. I knew exactly the book I needed. I had already found it in the Keep of Solomon. I needed merely to photocopy some of the pages. I was walking toward the front door, treasure in hand, when I saw Beltran waiting for me in the foyer. No one paid him any mind despite that he was dressed in a long coat and high fur hat. On the second level, one of his men was standing by the railing, keeping an eye on us both. My pace slowed. I stopped.
“Mila.” He nodded. He motioned to the door, but it was not threatening. “May I walk you back to the inn?”
“That implies I have a choice.”
He held the door for me and I stepped onto the sidewalk. The sun was shining. There were plainclothes guards at both street corners. He saw me notice them.
“They are for our protection.”
“How did you find me?”
We walked down the steps toward the street. The man from the balcony exited the doors behind us and kept a distance of twenty or so paces.
“He said you went to the library,” Beltran explained. He took one of the books I carried from my hand and stopped to examine it. “Medieval architecture?”
“Am I to suppose that by ‘he’ you meant Etude?” I took the book back.
“And where is he?”
“Back at the inn. I thought we could talk alone. If it’s all right with you.”
“What you’re going to say.”
Beltran hadn’t stood on the walls of the Keep with his colleagues. He hadn’t cared to chase us. Indeed, he’d ordered his men—the last loyal to him, anyway—not to give pursuit. Instead, he stood in the grand hall contemplating the inescapable meaning of the shattered Eye. He picked up one of the shards and in its polygonal facets saw one final image before the last of its magic faded: the little inn in Milan where Etude and I took refuge.
“I have only come to say goodbye,” he said softly. “I thought we might have a few moments while your friend is busy unwrapping his present.”
He nodded. “A wardrobe. From China. A gift from the great Master Wu, who, it seems, had predicted these events would transpire.” He motioned to a street side cafe. “Shall we?”
I took a seat at a small table where I could keep an eye on the men keeping an eye on us. Beltran ordered two espressos.
“I suspect that knowledge,” he continued, “and not anything untoward by Master Tresillian, was the true reason for Master Wu’s disappearance.”
“That implies he told you what was coming.”
“No. He gave me the wardrobe, sealed, at our last encounter and said it could only be opened by ‘he who will blind us all.’ Until these events, I had no way of knowing it would be your friend.”
Our coffees came and we stirred them and each took a sip.
“The story will be…” he began, “that a new book was written.”
He nodded gravely.
“So. Your colleagues are going to cover up their failure by blaming an innocent man. A boy, no less.”
He nodded again.
I looked at the bar. A businessman in patent leather shoes was buying a pastry.
“They’ll despise him,” I said. “Everyone. They’ll all blame him for whatever happens.” I sighed. “And he’ll let them.”
Beltran studied me. “You mean to fight them, then? Our resurgent foes.”
I leaned forward. “They’re afraid. They’re scared of him. Of what he can do. And that means we can beat them.”
“I don’t think you’ll have to.”
“What do you mean?”
“The Eye has cracked. The end has come.”
“Just like that? After 700 years?”
“Oh, I imagine it will take a little time yet, perhaps even several years. But yes. The Eye wasn’t just the means by which The Masters kept power over others. It was also the only real mechanism of trust between us. It not only gave each visibility into what the others were doing, but also the understanding that the others had the same visibility into their own activities. Without that, suspicion will take over. They will plot against each other if only to avoid being plotted against.”
“And you?” I asked. “What will they do with you?”
“Exile,” he said without pause or grief. “I had already agreed to step down anyway. I will use this as an excuse to return to my family’s estate.”
In the mountains east of the Black Sea. Where we spent our first winter. Where we fell in love. He was telling me he was going to spend his last days in the place he’d been happiest in his life.
It took me a long moment to respond. “But surely you don’t need to honor their demands now.”
“Why? Because I can get away with not honoring them? I gave my word, Mila. Whether such men deserve it or not, I gave it all the same.”
“We could use your help,” I said softly.
He leaned forward then as well such that our faces were not so very far apart. “Are you asking me to come with you?”
“And if I asked the same?”
“Please don’t try to talk me out of it.” I wasn’t sure I could resist.
“The truth is, I’m not sure what I could do for you,” he said. “It takes me twenty minutes to straighten my back in the morning, and I can never be far from a toilet! You don’t know how lucky you are, Mila.”
Beltran’s back was permanently stiffened during the ritual that he claimed had destroyed the book. But it hadn’t. He had merely wrecked himself against it, it seemed.
“I wish you had told me the truth,” I said.
He couldn’t look me in the face. His own sagged with age and regret.
“I came into this fight protecting you,” he said looking at the table. “That was my first mission. And that is how I will leave it. It is true, I suppose, that my actions in pursuit of that aim have not always been virtuous, but I could not have done any different.”
I saw my husband then. There was still a little of him left. I leaned over the little table and took his face in my hands and kissed him, long and full, and when our lips parted, he was teary.
“Mila…” He sighed and took my wrists in his hands. He kissed my palm. “I never should have taken office.”
“No. You needed to count. If you had declined, you would’ve always regretted it. It would’ve changed nothing. Sooner or later… Well, we are who we are.”
“So it was doomed? We were doomed?”
“No. But everything comes to an end. And we had many good years together. It wasn’t all deception, was it?”
Beltran and I had split for a very simple reason: I refused to give him children. Seeing me with the orphans, how happy I was, he became convinced that I wanted to be a mother as much as he wanted to be a father—the kind of father he never had. And perhaps part of me did. But I said no all the same. Always, I said no, no matter how often, how strenuously he asked. Or demanded. To him, it seemed the greatest betrayal—worse, I think, than if I had taken another lover. But how could I have children? How could I watch them grow old and die? It would’ve broken me. As nothing else ever could.
“We must live with the choices we make,” I said.
“Where will you start?” he asked, clearing his throat of tears.
“When Mr. Morgan interrogated me, it was in an old orthodox church somewhere in Central Asia. There was an arabesque carved into the wall.” I lifted one of the books I’d gotten from the library: Far Under Heaven: Christian Churches of the Silk Road. “I remember those churches. I doubt Morgan thought anything of it. No one does these days. But those patterns were all unique. It shouldn’t be too hard to find it. When he returns, we’ll be there.”
He smiled at me, ruefully.
“What?” I asked.
“He won’t know what hit him,” he said proudly. “This is the Mila I remember. The fighter. Not the woman who cowered in the mountains, afraid of her own shadow. You have fixed yourself.” He admired me. “I only got in the way.”
“Have I offended you?”
“No. It’s… Mr. Morgan suggested I didn’t who I was anymore—if I was aristocrat or thief, governess or spy. For a while, some part of me worried he was right. I couldn’t say which of those things I was. But I know who I am. I am all of those things. And now I am friend and teacher as well.” His hand rested on the linen and I took it. “We couldn’t stop our enemies. We threw everything we had at them, and it wasn’t enough. They endured. But now we have someone who can finish what we started.”
“Is he ready for such a position?”
“No. But that is what I can do. Get him ready.”
We were silent a long time, holding each other’s hand. We shared glances and looks that only we knew.
“I don’t want to say goodbye,” I said, feeling myself grow weak.
“Then don’t.” He stood resolutely and straightened his coat on his shoulders, the coat that seemed just a little too big for him anymore. “I will protect you from that as well.”
I stood. “Beltran—”
“I have given my colleagues false information,” he said, dropping some money on the table. “Our enemies will be looking for you in all the wrong places. But be careful. I’m not sure how much time it will buy you. And you know well that these men are dangerous.”
“I know,” I said.
He nodded, lips pressed together. “Farewell. My love.”
And with that, he walked away. He nodded to his men and they followed him, leaving me alone.
I wandered with my books back to the little inn where Etude and I had hidden. I stopped on the landing at the top of the stairs and let several tears fall. I knew I wouldn’t be able to hold it if I kept everything in. I thought about high mountain meadows and wildflowers and the scent of fresh game on the fire. I thought about waking naked in the night, wrapped in that great fur coat, and watching him sleep and thinking that Beltran was the bear of heaven himself come to earth. Ursa Major. The constellation my father had taught me when I was a girl. The stars on our family crest.
I heard a noise and wiped my face and cleared my throat and stepped into the room. It was long and narrow. The ceiling sloped down on one side following the line of the roof. There was a small balcony at the back and two single beds in the middle. I had thought the room’s walnut wardrobe, which dated from the 1930s, was beautiful, but the one that now stood awkwardly in the narrow floorspace was absolutely stunning. It was dark and accented in the traditional Chinese style, with simple, clean lines and a circular brass fixture connecting the front doors, which had been opened to reveal a rack of sliding shelves and small cabinet drawers. Etude was sitting on the bed removing packing paper from the object in his lap. There were books and artifacts everywhere. On the floor by my feet was a wooden box with a polished inlay depicting scenes from Chinese mythology. The rectangular border was adorned with the full collection of trigrams. It was beautiful.
“What’s this?” I asked, kneeling to it. I lifted the lid. Inside was a coat—foggy gray, folded neatly.
“That is not coming with us.”
I held it up. It was clearly old. And gorgeous. Each of the three buttons was different. There was a dollop of polished amber with an insect trapped inside, like a winged spider with an elongated body and a barbed stinger—the first wasp.
“Well?” I asked.
“Have you at least tried it on?”
“Of course not.” He scowled. “It is the coat of a great Taoist sorcerer, a relic of the second century. Not outerwear.”
“Well, Master Wu obviously wanted you to have it. I’m certain he didn’t mean for you to put it in storage.”
When he didn’t answer, I set it down gently.
“Ms. Milanova—” he began.
“No. Don’t call me that.” I went to the balcony and looked out on the rooftops of the city. It was a beautiful, sunny day. “I think Lady Milanova has lived her life, several times over, in fact.”
“A new identity then?”
“And what will you call yourself?”
A pair of birds flew over the rooftops and in front of a spire of an old church. I could see the Alps in the distance. “How about… Milan?”
He shrugged. “As you wish.”
“And I will practice an American accent. An American can be from anywhere. People born since have no idea what a joy that is.”
When I walked back into the room, he was scowling at the pair of crystal orbs he held in his hands. I watched him pack them in felt. I walked to the door and lifted the coat again.
“Put it on,” I said. “Just once. For me. And if it doesn’t fit, we’ll seal it up forever.”
He sighed and stood. I held it out and he stuck his arms into the sleeves. He turned to face the mirror. I could tell by the look on his face that he saw exactly what I did, even if he didn’t say it.
“It looks very good.”
It fit perfectly. But then I suspect he knew it would.
He adjusted his shoulders and tugged on the sleeves and looked at himself. Wearing that fantastic foggy coat.
I stood next to him, my bald-headed friend, and took the wrinkled crook of his sleeve in my arm.
“We’ll need a cover,” I said. “Some way to avoid suspicion.”
He nodded grimly. “I have been contemplating it.”
“I thought, perhaps, a series of dinners.”
“Dinners? Well.” I pondered it. “They would have to be quite exquisite dinners. Fantastical, even. If they’re to do the job.”
He nodded and studied himself in the mirror. “I have some ideas. But.” He looked at me gravely. “There is one final errand first.”
“It will only be a matter of time before our enemies return to the forest. They will not have risked a second breach so soon. They would wait until they were sure suspicion has passed safely to me. We must act quickly. We must take from that place that which we found. We must steal the darkest object in it, you and I, even if it is the end of us. We must see that what is bound inside that chair stays bound. Forever. On this, all depends. For if it escapes, I fear there is not a soul left on the earth that can stop it.”
An excerpt from my urban occult mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS.
The complete two-volume epic is available now.