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For all of Logan's bluster, we didn't leave that night. It took until dawn to even make it back to Di Luca's home. Taking the carriage, we rode through byways for hours in the general direction of city. As the sun crested the horizon, small clusters of homes began appearing. Soon after, more and more buildings dotted the road, and we began to recognize different landmarks. Finally, the wheels slowed and stopped in front of the estate. I dragged myself down from the driver's seat, my calves throbbing.
The carriage door opened, and Logan stuck his head out. "My good man? A bit of help, if you please."
His cocksure smile caused me to pause, and the ridiculousness of the entire situation washed over me. I started chuckling, but this soon degenerated into a rolling guffaw, my shoulders heaving. My friends stepped down from the vehicle and thumped me on the back. Arm in arm, we wandered inside.
I couldn't speak for the others, but I was simply wrung out, physically and emotionally. Looking down, I noticed my hands were still spotted with crimson droplets. I had never killed before, except at the hunt of course. But a man is not a deer. It didn't matter that we'd been ambushed by scoundrels with every intention to kill us. By my hand a life was gone. But for the moment, I left off the dark thoughts. Logan was staring expectantly at me.
"Yes?" I asked.
"You didn't hear me, did you? You look worn out. Let's rest for a few hours. But I'm serious; we should leave by tonight at the latest. The sooner we learn what this cult is, the sooner we'll have some peace to enjoy."
Jacob was already moving up the stairs. Like me, his shuffling feet belied any motivation, and pieces of his costume ball were slipping off his shoulders with each step. We followed him up the stairs and broke off towards our separate rooms.
I didn't even remember disrobing, but I woke as the sun peaked through the curtains opposite my bed. By the rays' intensity, it must have been hours later. Looking down, I smiled. I hadn't changed in fact. The green and grey costume from the ball still clung to me like dirt. Calling an attendant, I prepared a bath and readied myself for the day, whatever time it was. I selected traveling attire and quickly packed my things. Descending the stairs, I found Logan and Jacob, similarly dressed. Before them waited an arrangement of light pastries and fruits. Jacob was finishing off a pear and smiled up at me through a full mouth.
Logan inclined his head. "Good morning. Refreshed?"
"Hardly. What time is it anyway?"
Jacob finished chewing and consulted his pocket watch. "Early afternoon; just after two o'clock."
I joined the pair at the table as my stomach rumbled. Smiling, I grabbed the nearest fruit, a delectable-looking plum. "Any word from our host?"
"Not at all. I'm sure he has no idea we're even leaving today," said Jacob.
"Speaking of, where are we going? They've followed us through two cities now," I said around the plum.
"Riktenburg, of course," Logan said offhandedly. "Mercedes' family knows about the Faith. They were too scared to talk about them, and apparently for good reason. I killed one of their members in an honorable, fair fight, and the devils want our heads. We're going to find out what they do and how we can appease them before the lot of us ends up dead."
"Besides, Germany is supposed to be beautiful," Jacob added.
Logan's eyes turned glassy for a moment. "Yes . . . Beauty. Yes! Riktenburg it is, then."
I smiled, recalling his fawning attention over Mercedes. The woman was exceptionably pretty, and I could easily see how Logan might enjoy seeing the beauty of Germany. "We're agreed then." Snatching another pastry, I rose from the table. "Let's find our host and be rid of this city." The others stood without hesitation, and a servant approached at our rising.
"I'm terribly sorry, but could you awaken your master? Pressing and unfortunate circumstances require us to leave immediately," said Logan to the man.
The valet shrugged. "I'm sorry, sir. But he hasn't returned from the party yet."
Logan looked at me, but it was Jacob who asked. "He hasn't returned? Do you know where he is at least?"
"I'm sorry, no. Master Di Luca celebrates often. He's been known to stay out late."
"This late?" pressed Jacob.
The valet's face clouded. "Actually no. I can't remember another time like this."
Before any of us could speak, someone started pounding on the entry door. The valet nodded to us and went to answer the summons.
"That's probably him," said Logan.
"Why would he knock on his own door?" I chided.
The valet had reached the entrance by now. As he opened the door, a man beckoned him outside. We couldn't see any particulars of the visitor, but the valet followed. They stood outside talking for some time while we chatted; there was nothing else to do. At last, the valet returned. He ushered a constable inside, and we froze. The officer's face didn't look promising.
He strode over. "Good morning, gentlemen. Did you accompany the master of this house to the ball at the Medici estate last evening?"
Logan took the lead. "We did, yes. Is there a problem?"
"Yes. I'm afraid there is. You'll need to come with us. We'd like you to look over the evidence."
"Evidence of what?" I said. I doubted the government would be pleased with five dead men along the road, ambush or not.
He didn't answer. He only turned and left the house. We followed, getting into the carriage after him. The driver took off, and we sat in silence as the vehicle clipped along the road. It wound us through the cobbled streets. I stared out as partygoers and peasants walked along together, separate yet intertwined in the beast that was Rome.
Soon though, the passing images grew familiar. We'd retraced the route that morning. I looked at the constable. "Are we returning to the Medici manor?"
He nodded. "Close enough anyway. That's where it's at."
"Where what's at?" asked Logan.
He didn't answer again. I was starting to question if the officer was simple or our skills in the Italian language were flawed. Before I could think too much though, the carriage pulled to the side of the road at a fork, parking next to several other vehicles. We got out, following our mysterious messenger again.
"Oh my god," whispered Logan when he saw it.
"The devils." Jacob leaned against the carriage.
I almost retched, the bile leaping up unbidden.
One fork in the road led to the Medici estate, the other trailed off into the sunny Italian countryside. But in the middle, for all the travelers to see, was our missing Di Luca.
His fat, bloodied corpse had been nailed to a small copse of trees. Knifes stabbed through his soft flesh into the wood. His arms, splayed out like the Messiah's, drooped even in death. The exhaustion, stupor, and inhuman pain that coated his face told us everything. Despite his drink, he had understood the suffering.
Beneath the roughhewn crucifixion, a piece of parchment, slightly damp from the dew, had been stabbed into the tree with a dagger. A few officers were studying this. Collecting ourselves, we walked over.
One of the men was reading it. "' . . . and we can do it again. To those who think us cruel, know that our devotion warrants that cruelty. Mankind is slipping again. Renounce the devil and his works, or bear the same fate as this heathen. God wills it! In Nomine Patris, KW.'"
Our constable turned to us. "And do you know anything about this?"
I could barely breathe, let alone talk. Jacob had gathered the most strength, because he launched into the entire tale. He told of the ambush and gave a rough estimate of where that church had been. A pair of the officers broke off, returned to their carriage, and drove away towards the scene of that ambush.
With a sick, meaty sound, the officers pulled the daggers from Di Luca's outstretched limbs. Blood poured from the reopened wounds, drenching their uniforms and the grass below. We turned away. Our constable led us back to the carriage.
"We've already talked with Ambassador K
lein. He, and others at the party, indicated that you left long before Di Luca. That, plus the conversation I had with Di Luca's servant this morning clears you. You were back at the house before Di Luca's absence; the timing doesn't work out."
"Thank you," said Logan. "We're shaken up. We didn't know him long, but he was a wonderful host and new friend."
"My regrets. We'll do our best, but there seems little chance of finding the criminals. A wealthy man like Di Luca has plenty of enemies."
"May we return now? We're planning to leave Rome today. Seeing this, the sooner the better," said Jacob. It felt wrong to abandon our friend, but there was nothing to be done about him; he was past help. Now we needed to survive long enough to avenge him. And that meant clearing out of the city.
The constable loaded us back into the carriage and we drove back to Di Luca's home. Of course, the servants were distraught, but again, there was nothing to be done. We explained our situation as best we could and warned them to be wary. We packed and thanked them again for their hospitality.
Fighting a biting wind, we directed the loading of our luggage, and the staff ushered us into another carriage. Inside, we shared a longsuffering glance. The wheels of the vehicle bounced forward, and without further pomp, we were again on the move. No one felt like talking. I let myself relax into the silence and the cushions as hovels and cathedrals swirled past, the sea of humanity flowing around us like a breaking tide.
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