Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 22
Stories
Love, Cayce
by Marie Brennan
Exodus Tides
by Aliette de Bodard
Exiles of Eden
by Brad R. Torgersen
The Long Way Home
by G. Norman Lippert
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
The Bus Stop
by David Lubar
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

We Who Steal Faces
    by Tony Pi

1st Place - Best Interior Art - 2011

We Who Steal Faces
Artwork by Jin Han

January 4, 1588

Mafeo Premarin, my eyes and ears in the shadows of Venice, was dying of poison.

I knelt by Mafeo's bedside and took his trembling hand. His flesh felt cold, patches of red mottled his skin. He tried to speak but fell into a fit of coughs instead. I looked for blood in the sputum on his beard. None yet, a small relief.

The assassin had left a trail of bodies: intelligencers in Amsterdam, Paris, and Lisbon. They were good men, all, loyal to England. Whoever killed them was blinding us to the intrigues abroad. In these times when Spain sought to overthrow Elizabeth's reign, we needed the vigilance of every spy. I refused to let the killer take any more of my operatives, least of all my top man.

"Who did this to you, old friend?"

The point of a stiletto grazed the side of my throat.

"The poison's robbed him of his voice," Luca said in his father's stead. "If you are Flea, you know how to earn my trust. Show me his face."

His caution was wise. In these times of looming war, spies like us had to take every precaution to know friend from foe.

"I'll need that mirror in the restello frame."

Luca allowed me to stand. I took the mirror and slid open a secret compartment along its top. Inside lay the handkerchief Mafeo had hidden there when I first taught him how to thieve. I felt the prickle of Lightning magic dancing within the silk threads. Mafeo, last to touch the kerchief decades ago, had left an impression of his younger self trapped in the silk like a fly in a spider's web.

I willed the Lightning to enter my flesh, letting the magic shape my body into the exact image of my apprentice as he had been in his prime. My brawny physique thinned and shortened, and my skin darkened to a sun-bronze. Pain blossomed in my left hand. Teethmarks from a mastiff's bite, still scabbing over, reminded me of our first burglary together as master and pupil.

Luca gasped at my transformation, but Mafeo managed a faint smile.

"Proof enough?" I asked with Mafeo's voice as it had been.

Luca sheathed his stiletto. "Forgive me, Master Flea. I had to be sure. Father prepared me for this moment with many tales of your magic, but I never believed him till now!"

"Tell me what happened."

"Two days ago, at the height of Carnivale, Father met with a Spaniard who claimed to know Álvaro de Bazán's plans for the Armada. I waited for him in a gondola, watching the costumed revelers go by. On his way back, a man in a white Volto mask pushed past him. In the space of a few steps Father had stumbled to the ground in a seizure. The masked man was long gone by the time Father's fits had calmed." He pulled up his father's sleeve and showed me a sickly red scratch.

I had seen poisonings like this before, administered by a needle hidden in a ring. "What of the Spaniard?"

Luca sighed. "I don't know how to find him. He would only meet with Father."

Mafeo wheezed, his breath stinking of rotten eggs.

"Rest, Mafeo. Your only task is to live." I held a cup of water to his lips. "I will find the antidote."

Mafeo closed his eyes.

"Come, let my sister tend to him," Luca whispered.

I hooded myself and donned my Harlequin mask as we left. Luca called to his sister and whispered instructions in her ear. Thereafter, we descended the stairs to the water door. I still wore Mafeo's face, and would for the remainder of the evening.

"Is there an antidote?" Luca asked.

"Your father's been given a concoction of many poisons tailored for a slow, agonizing death. One antidote is not enough."

"How do you know?"

I told him of the others who died in the same way. "I tried cure after cure, but unless all the poisons are countered, death comes within a day when the victim first coughs blood."

Luca paled. "What do we do?"

"The killer might carry the right antidotes or know the recipe for the poisons, but he will be hard to catch." I opened the water door and stepped into the moored gondola beyond. "But there is another way. The mithridate."

"What is it?" asked Luca, his voice regaining hope.

"Legend has it that King Mithridates the Sixth of Pontus so feared that he might be poisoned by his enemies, that he took small doses of many poisons to harden himself against them. He even made a special antidote that would protect him against all poisons, which came to bear his name."

Luca untied the rope and took hold of the oar. "But it's only a legend, isn't it?"

"They say the same of me. What has your father told you about me?"

"That you're a shapeshifter, centuries old. That you were once the outlaw Little John of the English ballads. That you now serve England's spymaster."

"Then believe me when I say that there are others far older than me, one of whom dwells in Venice and may keep the secret of the mithridate. Do you know Ca' Clessidra?"

"House Sandglass on Murano." Luca frowned. "Father said never to enter or steal from that place."

"An excellent and inviolable rule I taught him myself. Take me there."

As Luca ferried me across Laguna Veneta towards the isle of Murano, his silhouette against the setting sun reminded me much of his father. A gondolier by trade, Mafeo had given me my first tour of the city by canal thirty years ago. I had grown fond of the young Venetian during our explorations, even more so after he tried to cut the strings of my purse at the end of the day. Having centuries more experience at pickpocketing than he, he did not succeed, but I was so impressed by his audacity and potential that I took him as my apprentice. And now, the son followed in his father's footsteps.

By the light of dusk, I could see the palatial Ca' Clessidra on the approaching shore.

We were not the only ones heading there. The sound of music drew masked revelers through its doors like sand streaming into the bottom half of an hourglass.

"Wait here," I said.

"You might need me," Luca insisted. "Father's taught me everything he knows."

"He may be the best thief and spy in Venice, but even he would find great danger in this house."

"What makes it so dangerous?"

"Antlion," I replied, and said no more. "Besides, I may need a quick escape should things turn sour."

Luca nodded, but beneath his cloak he drummed his fingers on the hilt of his stiletto. I left him to brood while I hopped out of the gondola and followed a group of tittering masqueraders into House Sandglass, my Harlequin costume easily fitting in with the Columbines and Bautas.

Antlion, the master of Ca' Clessidra, was a legend whose genius shone through his names of old. Daedalus. Archimedes. Leonardo da Vinci. His mind conceived incredible things while his hands gave them shape, like the infamous Labyrinth at Knossos and fantastic machines of war. Indeed, his reputation had earned him much trust among our kind. Since ancient times, many of the Elect vested Antlion with the stewardship of their most prized possessions, trusting his traps and mazes to keep their treasures safe.

It was my hope that the mithridate was among those things.

Inside, masked guests mingled in the opulent hall. The décor illuminated Antlion's wealth, and the masterful paintings doubtlessly came from his own hand. Women behind feathered masks called to me to share wine with them, and had I not come to see Antlion on a singular mission, I might have sought their company.

The old shapeshifter proved easy to find. When a portly man with a handheld golden mask came into the grand hall, the musicians silenced their instruments and the dancers ceased their dance. Two guards accompanied him, one in a Sun mask and the other the Moon, each bearing a lit oil lamp resembling the symbols they wore. Antlion's own mask played upon his secret name, a gold-leafed lion with rows of ants in amber set into the mane.

A servant quickly brought Antlion a goblet of wine. He lowered his mask, revealing the face of a charismatic bearded man in his forties. He tasted the wine and smiled. "I approve. To a perfect night!"

The cheer echoed throughout House Sandglass, returning the celebration to its liveliness. Men flocked to Antlion's side to curry favour, while women gazed longingly at him. To them, he was Vincenzo Scamozzi, an architect of much renown in the Veneto region. But Antlion also ruled Venice from the shadows. Little happened in the city that he did not know or approve of. Even we Elect gave Antlion due respect, for he who ruled Venice also controlled the amber and silk trades in Europe. Since we depended on those commodities for our immortality, only the brave or the foolish dared risk Antlion's wrath.

I approached. "Signor Scamozzi, might I have a private word?"

Antlion's eyes met mine. "And you are?"

I bowed. "Filippo Gamba." I had used that alias in Florence in 1506 when I studied with him during his time as Leonardo da Vinci.

"Flea?" His mood darkened. "What have you come to steal this time?"

"Still haven't forgiven me for stealing that codex of yours, I see. I must say, those notes on shape-shifting were quite illuminating." The tricks of healing and organ-shifting in the book had saved my life on more than a few occasions.

Antlion scowled. "Then you also know how many ways I could kill you before your powers could save you."

"Listen to my plea, first. I suppose you know why I've come?"

"I've heard whispers of trouble for your network of spies."

"Someone's been poisoning them, letting them die slow deaths. I need your help to save them."

"Why should I help you, thief?"

"In exchange for the return of the Proteus Codex, I hope."

He stared at me. "You dare bargain with something that is rightfully mine?"

Despite his icy tone, I caught the faintest curl of a smile. He was tempted.

"That, and my incomparable skills for a theft of your choosing."

Antlion raised an eyebrow. "Anything, anytime?"

I nodded.

"Where is my notebook?"

"Safe and near. You have my word you'll get it back."

He gave it some thought. "Then let us continue this conversation in the Sala di Enea." He bade his admirers to enjoy the party and led me to the stairs, his protectors flanking me as I followed.

We entered a room with pale green walls and glass doors opening onto a portico. The Room of Aeneas must have been named for the magnificent tapestry that covered the north wall, showing a scene from the myth of the Trojan War.

"Take watch, men," Antlion said. The Sun-masked guard took his place in the hallway outside the room while the Moon stepped out onto the portico. Antlion said to me, "Your assassin kills for Bee."

I frowned. Bee claimed among her early shapes Medea, Delilah, Cleopatra, and Empress Messalina: poisoners and betrayers, all. A century ago she abandoned the guise of Lucrezia Borgia to become Catherine de Médicis, Queen Mother to Henry III of France.

"Why does she want my spies dead? Why aid Spain against England?"

"My sources tell me that she's turning her sights on the New World. She tires of her present form and eyes the throne of Spain. There are reports of untapped reserves of amber in New Spain, and the Spanish Conquest of the Yucatan has brought additional reports of different species of bees and honey. For her, it is a means to new powers and conquests."

We who steal faces were few, relying on two sources of Lightning to transform our bodies: amber for permanent changes, silk for fleeting disguises. Honey also held Lightning, but Bee alone knew how to free the magic from that sweetness, and had known that secret since her time as Medea.

"And England stands in her way."

Antlion nodded.

I now understood. To win the New World, Bee would have to blind England to Spain's strategies, and that meant killing my best spies. "Who's Drone this time?" She always named her favourite minion that.

"His face changes, of course, but his voice betrays him as a Frenchman."

"I must have the mithridate, Antlion," I said. "You boasted once that Bee entrusted its secret to you."

"I have guarded treasures and secrets for thousands of years, Flea, for pharaohs, kings, and Doges. What I keep in my Labyrinth vault stays protected until the owner demands it back. No man has ever bested the traps in my maze or breached the vault at its centre or ever will," he said.

"No maze is unsolvable. Where does your Labyrinth lie?"

He laughed. "If I tell you, you will certainly die mangled in one of my traps. A pleasant thought, that, but how would I get my Proteus Codex back?"

"Either you have your revenge on me or I make amends once I have the mithridate. You win either way."

"True. All the same, tell me now what tragic tale you wish told of your many lives, so I may engrave it upon your tombstone."

I shrugged. "I am only fit for an unmarked grave."

"So be it." With a flourish, Antlion gestured at the tapestry depicting the Trojan War. "Let Il Dono di Ulisse, the Gift of Ulysses, lead you to your doom."  

So, Antlion had hidden the path to his new Labyrinth in the imagery. He could never resist flaunting his brilliance, even when it could spell his own downfall. That was how King Minos lured him out when he was Daedalus in hiding: with a puzzle only he could solve.

Antlion called to his guards. "Sun, come with me. Moon, stay with our guest." He paused at the doorway but did not look back. "Make certain he steals nothing."

With that, he was gone.

Moon watched as I set aside my harlequin mask to better study the tapestry, a marvel of weaving with exquisite detail. I was familiar enough with Antlion's work to know he had a hand in its creation. The silk portrayed in painstaking detail the procession of the Trojan Horse. The wooden horse loomed tall over the dozen soldiers pulling it through the gates of Troy. Tricks of light and shadow suggested more Trojans were pushing the great beast on wheels from behind.

In the foreground, a wild-haired Cassandra in a crimson flowing robe beat at the soldiers with a branch. According to myth, she possessed the gift of prophecy, and foresaw how the horse would bring about the fall of the city. But the god Apollo had cursed her so that no one would ever believe her. A severed tongue upon the dirt at her feet symbolized her words falling on deaf ears.

But how did these things point to the whereabouts of Antlion's new Labyrinth? I memorized as many details as I could, from the architecture of the stone gate, to the stance of the Wooden Horse, to the petals of mulberry flowers upon the branch she held.

So enthralled in the puzzle, I almost did not notice the light in the room change. When my shadow suddenly grew large and shifted on the tapestry, I ducked Moon's swing towards my head with his oil lamp staff. The lamp missed my head but broke against the tapestry, spilling burning oil onto the silk and setting it afire.

My assailant dropped the staff and drew a knife. I threw my full weight into a low tackle, sending him reeling backward, but he managed a cut at my throat. The sharp edge sliced into my jugular.

The wound would have been grievous had I not still been wearing Mafeo's image. Instead, the form I borrowed from the silk unraveled, shielding me from the otherwise devastating cut. As I regained my previous shape, the wound to my throat vanished. I kicked Moon in the stomach, knocking him stumbling backward.

Moon steadied himself and threw the knife. I turned just in time, avoiding the steel sinking into my chest but taking its bite on my left upper arm. I gritted my teeth and grabbed his abandoned staff, but the fire behind me was spreading fast, the smoke stinging my eyes.

He drew another knife, but suddenly he startled as his own stolen form unraveled. Bee's Drone. He had infiltrated Antlion's home and meant to kill me as well as my spies. A stiletto clattered to the floor behind him.

My tearing eyes caught a glimpse of Luca on the portico.

Caught between Luca and me, Moon sped through the interior door and into House Sandglass. I hastened after him, but the only trace of him was the mask of the Moon abandoned on the floor of the corridor.

"Should we go after him?" Luca asked.

I shook my head. The fire would soon grow deadly if I didn't alert Antlion and his masquerade guests. I raised my voice and shouted Fire.

Frantic shouts and footfalls rose from below.

"I thought I told you to stay in the gondola."

"Father's first rule: protect you even if I must disobey your orders," Luca confessed.

I smiled. Mafeo would say that. "Remind me later that I owe Antlion a book."

Once we were safely back on water, I tended to the wound on my arm. I retrieved a hidden piece of amber and held it in my left hand. It was too dark to see if it was the one with the midge or the gnat trapped inside, but either way, the amber held bottled Lightning. I drew the jewel's Lightning up my arm and imagined my arm whole. Shaped by my thoughts, the magic closed the cut.

"What a night of marvels," Luca said. "Is this how you stave off death?"

"We can still die. Thank you for saving my life."

Drone must have overheard everything, which meant he knew I was going after the mithridate. "You know Venice better than I, Luca." I relayed what I discovered to him. "What do the clues in the tapestry mean?"

Luca asked for more details, and after a while gave his opinion. "There's a walled town on the mainland, like Troy, west of here called Padua. They say that its legendary founder was Antenor, a Trojan."

"What else?" I asked, unsure if that alone pointed to the Labyrinth.

"The tongue. The town's Basilica is named after their patron saint, Saint Anthony of Padua," Luca said. "Legend has it that Saint Anthony's body inside the Basilica had turned to dust, all except his tongue, which is still fresh and untouched."

Saint Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of lost things. Antlion would find perverse delight in that.

"Padua it is."

Hours later, Luca and I stood in a circle of lamplight, gazing up at the great wooden horse on the grounds of the Palazzo Capodilista in Padua.

The majestic wooden horse before us had been built for a fairground joust in 1466 by the order of Annibale Capodilista. Though the horse had not been designed by Donatello, it bore many similarities to the bronze equestrian statue of Gattamelata in the Piazza del Santo in Venice. I would not be surprised if Antlion had a hand in its construction or even claimed Donatello as a past identity. The tapestry might not have led us directly to the Labyrinth, but I gambled that the next clue lay with the great beast.

"Where do we start?" Luca asked.

I considered the possibilities. The horse, easily the height of three men, stood upon a wooden base that made it taller still. The base and the horse itself had been designed for men to enter and hide for the purpose of the joust. Its head and tail had not withstood the passing of the years well, appearing damaged.

I thought back to Cassandra's tongue in the painting, a deviation from classical myth. "Let's try the mouth. Give me a hand."

I climbed onto Luca's shoulders and pulled myself onto the horse's back. I could not easily reach the horse's mouth unless I hung one-handed from the horse's neck, but I had built this body strong and acrobatic: perfect for such a challenge. Gripping its wooden mane, I swung myself towards its mouth and grabbed onto its jaw. Searching inside with my fingers, I found a piece of hardwood that came loose.

I let go of the horse's neck and dropped to the ground. Inscribed upon the hardwood plaque was a phrase in Venesiàn. "To find the paths in darkness, raise your eyes to the stars." I smiled. "If you were an astronomer at the University of Padua, Luca, where would you look to the stars?"

"Someplace high?"

"Exactly, the tallest tower in Padua. Come, let's find these paths in darkness."

The highest tower in Padua stood in the southern outskirts of town, once part of the old Castle. Situated near where two of Padua's canals met, it had served as a prison in the past.

Luca and I found our way into the tower cellar where I found a loose stone high on one wall. When I pressed the stone, a hidden door shuddered open.

Taking the lamp from Luca, I peered inside. A small antechamber, with a single earth passage leading into the depths. Luca tried to follow me into the antechamber, but I stopped him.

"Too dangerous. If I do not return by dawn, assume I am dead and go back to Venice."

"You know I'd just come after you again," Luca said. "Besides, if the killer followed us, I'll be safer with you."

I lit a torch with flame from his lamp. "Then do exactly as I say: step where I step, touch nothing without leave, and --"

"-- and keep you in sight. You taught Father that too."

I grinned. "Then you know I mean it."

Paved earthen tunnels lay beyond the antechamber. To trace our path, I held a piece of amber to the torchlight and gazed at the gnat caught within. I borrowed a lick of its power to mark my path in a carmine tattoo on the back of my right hand, tracing our route as we ventured deeper.

Luca followed my instructions precisely. "It seems safe thus far."

"Only because we've stepped around three pitfalls." I pointed out the edges of the one we just passed. "There will be deadlier traps."

Together, we stalked the winding corridors beneath Padua. Deeper into the maze, hewn stone lined the passages. By my reckoning, we had traveled so far underground that we stood somewhere beneath Padua's university. It would not surprise me in the least to learn that Antlion had laid the foundations for the Paduan Labyrinth ages ago when the university was founded. He and his minions had centuries to perfect the maze.

A tunnel led us to a stone door carved with the symbol of the Winged Lion of Venice. I studied the door from three paces back. Was it another mock portal, or a trapped gateway leading deeper into the maze?

"Another dead end?" Luca asked.

"You tell me."

I took the lamp from Luca. He knelt to examine the door without touching it, then the tiles in the floor. "Since Antlion would need to visit his vault, the true path would show signs of his passage. By the way the door's constructed, it should pull towards us, but I see no scratch marks on the floor. This is a dead end."

"Your reasoning is excellent, Luca. But what of the trap?"

Luca frowned and examined the door again. "Faint stains on the door, darker ones in the groove of the symbol. Blood." He looked up. "A twin stain on the ceiling. I see. A catch holds the hinged marble slab above in place, and when a thief tries the door, the swinging slab crushes him between the stones."

"Let's try a different passage." I touched amber and inked this branch of the maze as impassable with a blue tattoo.

We returned the way we came to a corridor we had passed earlier. The tunnel, covered in spider-webs, gave an impression of disuse, but could Antlion have somehow woven the webs? It would be an effective way to mislead a would-be thief. After all, our power to change shapes came from bugs and the like, leeching magic from amber and silk. Given Antlion's genius, he might know a way to command a legion of spiders.

I burned away the webs with my torch and entered the passage, inking the new path on my skin with another spark of Lightning. Luca followed. More webs concealed a bend in the passageway. I touched my torch to the webs again, but as they burned, I caught gleams of objects falling from crevices in the ceiling. Glass!

I dropped the torch and stumbled to my knees, grabbing for the falling vials. But they were too far apart. My free hand snatched one of the delicate vials, but the other --

Luca caught the second vial inches above the ground.

We caught our breaths and exchanged glances.

A colourless liquid rippled within the sealed vials. The pretty containers, most certainly made from Murano glass, had threads of white silk tied around their necks. Clever of Antlion to hide the threads among the webs, knowing the touch of flame or a rough tug might make the vials fall and break.

Luca took up the torch. "What's in them?"

"Antlion loves alchemy. Had the glass shattered, no doubt the concoction's fumes would have overcome or killed us." I took the vial from Luca and put both against a wall, out of the path of a stray foot.

The tunnel snaked for twenty paces before ending at a flight of stairs leading down to another stone door. Did the door below conceal another trap?

"Wait at the top," I said, taking the torch back.

I descended the stairs with caution. No loose stones or hidden threads on the way down, eleven steps in all. I studied the new stone door from the last step, not yet ready to set foot on the lower landing.

The jambs and lintel framing the plain door bore stone roundels carved with heraldic beasts. They numbered eleven, three above and four on either side.

The roundels on the left jamb, from lowest to highest: Eagle. Winged Lion. Horse. Goat.

Continuing on the lintel, from left to right: Dog. Panther. Serpent.

Finally, to the right, from top to bottom: Double-headed Eagle. Dragon. Minotaur. Unicorn.

"What did you find?" Luca called from the top of the stairs.

"Symbols. They may be the key to opening the door." The roundels had been designed to be turned, not pressed. Surely one would unlock the door, while the others delivered death.

I searched the surroundings again. If I knew the manner of the trap, I might better understand the puzzle of the heraldic beasts.

The ceiling did not seem to hide a swinging slab as before. The floor looked solid and unlikely to give way. I took a tentative step onto the landing, ready to leap back onto the stairs.

Nothing.

I knelt and examined the stairs. Each step had borne my full weight, but it took a careful eye to notice that the rise of the steps were not natural stone. Linen canvas painted to resemble bare rock concealed the true stone. A convincing illusion. I used my dagger to cut away a swath of cloth from the fourth step from the bottom to see what hid beneath.

The step had a line of seven round holes cut into it, oddly spaced, each the width of a large thumb. I could not see what lay on the other side, but had an inkling as to their true purpose. I had once admired Antlion's designs for giant crossbows, but those same arbalests could mean my death here. Antlion likely set such weapons under the stairs, rigged to impale someone who twisted the wrong symbol.

I told Luca my suspicions. Together, we tore the canvas away. Eleven steps, seven holes each, made for a terrifying storm of arrows.

"Ten roundels might lead to death, and one to the treasures beyond. Luca, do these symbols mean anything to you?"

Luca considered the symbols in turn. "A few. This is the heraldic device of Lombardia. This Eagle here's for Friuli. And the Winged Lion of Venice of course."

"The Winged Lion's too obvious." Antlion could be counting on the thief to choose the symbol of Saint Mark. "The Minotaur, beast of Crete, once the guardian of the ancient Labyrinth. Again, an obvious choice. But the Panther -- myths tell that the traitor Antenor helped Odysseus open the gates of Troy. To reward his betrayal, Antenor's house, marked by a panther skin hung above the door, had been spared in the sack of Troy. That must mean Padua."

Luca frowned. "It seems too simple. Why not pick a random image?"

I reconsidered the roundel with the heraldic Panther, venting fire from its ears and mouth. Did I overlook something? Would Antlion really hide the key to the stone door in an obvious symbol?

I decided to trust what I knew of Antlion. "When Antlion delights in riddles and hidden meanings. Given that he kept true to the clues in Il Dono di Ulisse and the Capodilista Horse, these symbols likely hold secret meaning as well. Look where he chose to put the Panther: directly over the threshold, alluding to the myth of Antenor."

"You can't be sure the bolts won't fire even if you turn the right symbol," Luca said. "These things turn. They don't work by push, so you can't prod them with a staff from a safe distance. You'd have to know where and how to stand."

I saw his point. Even if I changed back to my first shape, with the reach of seven-foot tall Little John, I could not turn a symbol from a position safe from the array of crossbows. I had to place myself in the maw of the trap.

I looked up. The walls at the landing stood five feet apart, and the ceiling six feet high. I handed the torch to Luca. "Go back to the top." Though it was a tight squeeze, I braced my hands and feet against opposite walls and climbed up, my body flat and facing down. I climbed until my back hit the ceiling.

Luca held the torch low to give me light.

I twisted the Panther roundel.

Three bolts flew out of the stairs. One hit where my head would have been, had I been standing in front of the door, breaking against the stone. The second struck the left wall. The third arrow, angled upward from the rise of the second step, buried its sharp head in my thigh. I held in a cry of pain and kept myself from falling.

Damned Antlion had anticipated that a thief might try exactly what I did. Had I been turned the other way, the bolt might have pierced my heart.

There came a shout of surprise and sounds of a struggle, and then the torch rolled down the stairs. I dropped down to the ground and looked up. Luca was struggling with a man at the top of the stairs, desperately keeping a dagger from being plunged into his chest.

Drone!

I hobbled up the stairs, every other step sending a jolt of pain through my injured leg. I forced Drone's knifehand away from Luca. Drone kicked my thigh and broke the arrow, driving the arrowhead deeper into my flesh and unbalancing me. I cried out and fell backward, but dragged him with me, tumbling together down to the lower landing. I twisted him so that he was the one who fell on the flaming torch and he screamed. But he wrestled me with all his strength and rolled us further towards the portal, smashing my head against the floor.

I couldn't keep my mind clear. All I saw was a gleam coming towards my right eye.

I grabbed his wrist just in time, and with all my strength turned his hand and broke his wrist.

He howled and dropped the dagger, but grabbed for the amber set in its pommel with his good hand.

I grabbed his throat and reached for the amber as well, but he touched it first and drained its Lightning. He began to grow. I couldn't let him gain an advantage in size. I grabbed Drone and pressed him against the steps with my full weight while I still could. "Luca! Trigger the arrows!"

Luca leapt over our heads and used my back as a step, forcing the air from my lungs, but it helped me keep Drone down even as he grew larger.

The arbalests fired, a single bolt flying past my ear. The other two bolts buried themselves in Drone's back. He coughed blood on my bare chest, shuddered, and was still.

I tried to ask Luca how he was, but my voice would not come. Then I saw a scratch across my left palm. I had been poisoned.

Luca saw it too. "Maybe he has the antidote," he said, searching through Drone's clothes.

I reached for the other amber in my pocket, but it had been crushed beyond usefulness in my fall.

"Nothing!" Luca said.

I could barely hold on to consciousness. The mithridate that could save me was on the other side of the puzzle door. With a trembling hand, I indicated the roundels.

"But which?" Luca said, despair in his voice.

Darkness took me then.

I awakened in a round, vaulted chamber lit by tall brass candlestands with beeswax candles standing at the base of eight Doric columns. Dark alcoves set into the walls held chests of gold and silver that glimmered in the fading torchlight.

Luca breathed a sigh of relief. "The antidote worked."

"How . . .?"

"I figured out how to open the door," he said. "Well, not straight away; I made a couple of mistakes before figuring it out. Luckily, Drone's corpse took some arrows that might have killed me." He knelt. "But then I thought about you and Antlion. You're both proud of who you once were, and who you are now. If the Panther of Padua is the key to Antlion's current Labyrinth, then maybe the Minotaur is the key to his past. I tried both roundels at the same time and it worked." He pressed a piece of amber into my hand. "There are lots of these here."

I willed the spark of Lightning in the amber to heal me, forcing out the arrowhead and closing the wounds in my flesh.

Whole again, I stood with Luca's help. "Thank you."

"No, Master Flea, it is I who must thank you. There are more vials of mithridate, enough to save Father."

I walked the perimeter of the chamber, marveling at the heart of Antlion's Labyrinth. A passage curving behind the entrance likely led to Antlion's ballistae trap. Eight alcoves in the walls bore their own carved emblem at the top of each arch. Mantis. Locust. Cicada. Dragonfly. Butterfly. Spider. Scorpion. Bee. Ancient shape-shifters, all, elders among the Elect.

Luca showed me Bee's alcove. An open chest there bore a latch with the same bee emblem. Atop a bed of gleaming gold dinar, silver drachm coins, jewels and gems, lay two slender vials filled with honey-gold liquid, and a slab of basalt inscribed with Greek words. The mithridate and its recipe.

Bee would never poison another of my men again.

I gave the vials to Luca. "We must return to Venice at once. Take as well what treasure you can from Bee, so long as it does not weigh us down."

Under the magic of the mithridate, Mafeo began to regain his strength.

True to his nature, his first utterance to me was his report of his meeting with the Spaniard. At the end of it, he clasped my hands. "Master Flea, once again I owe you my life."

"Ah, but if you hadn't taught your son to defy me, Mafeo, I might well be dead myself." I regarded Luca with heartfelt thanks. "And what you have learned of the Armada may save all of England."


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