Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 50
Cherry Red Rocketship
by James Maxey
Jupiter or Bust
by Brad R. Torgersen
Middle Child Syndrome
by Scott M. Roberts
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction

May Our Voices Sing Like Blood from Open Wounds
    by Jason Sanford

May Our Voices Sing Like Blood from Open Wounds
Artwork by Dean Spencer

The barber whispers "ad Dei gloriam" as he gelds me, his tongs a red-hot star blazing the firmament of my opium dream. Siface swore the opium would dull my pain, but when the falling star reaches my flesh I still taste the cut and burn.

My scream is a beautiful, painful song. Or it becomes one in my opium dream.

Siface holds my hand and joins my song as flesh leaves flesh, his mezzo-soprano voice the purest of angels delighting in what he hopes I'll one day accomplish.

"You are now like me," he says in his high-loving voice. "I will teach you. I will mold you."

Ad Dei gloriam. To the glory of God.

Five years later God forsakes us on a dark road between Bologna and Ferrara. Instead of screaming, Siface sighs a perfect note as he dies on the packed dirt and stones. His sigh sounds like a new song he created far too late for anyone in this world to enjoy.

As the vampire finishes drinking Siface's blood, the monster eyes me, no doubt wondering why I didn't flee.

"I've no need to kill you, little boy," she says. "You didn't play games with my master's mistress. Or did you?"

I shake my head and stare in fascination at Siface's dead body, which looks nothing like the endlessly ritualized killings my master enacted in opera houses across Italy. I still remember the first time I saw him perform as King Siface, singing his love for Sofonisba and how he'd save both of them from the Romans. After that I--and most of his admirers--had been unable to call him anything other than Siface.

"Speak up, boy," the vampire tells me flatly, without emotion. "Was this Giovanni Francesco Grossi? I haven't killed the wrong man, have I?"

"No," I whisper, hoping this monster will let me touch Siface's bloody throat before she kills me. I want to feel the severed vocal cords. I want to know that Siface's performance is truly over.

"No?" the vampire says, mimicking my high-pitched voice. She wipes her mouth clean of a redness which glows faintly in the moonlight. "Ah, you are castrato, like this one. I have long appreciated the musical voices of your kind."

I ignore the vampire, trying to keep my fear in check as I step to Siface's body. In the distance a rooster crows. Down the road a candle shivers in a farmhouse window. Tiny bubbles dance and pop from Siface's ripped throat as the blood the vampire didn't swallow dribbles across the road's stones and packed dirt.

I reach into Siface's throat and touch his vocal cords. They are still warm. I push my fingers against them, wondering if I can make them again sing the voice which entranced all of Italy.

The vampire squats beside me, puzzled by my behavior.

"Who made you?" I ask.

"My master. Or more accurately, one of my master's predecessors. Who made you?"

I point at what remains of Siface's voice. I remember Siface giving me the opium and taking me in a daze to the barber. I remember the blazing star of the red-hot tongs before they cut my flesh.

"Ad Dei gloriam," I mutter.

"I see," the vampire says. "Well, little boy, you present me with a problem. Siface played at an affair with my master's mistress and I was sent to kill him. But I received no instructions on what to do with you. And here you are."

"Here I am."

The vampire grins. But the grin feels forced, as if in mimicry of a real person's smile. "My name is Ferri," she says.

"Nicolo Tenducci. But Siface called me Uccellino."

"Well, after witnessing your master's death you can hardly still be called a baby bird. Care if I call you Uccello?"

I do not care, and when the vampire Ferri walks back to her master's palace, I follow.

I am a capon. I am a rooster crowing about nothing.

Siface said that in our suite of rooms the night before he died. We were in Bologna for a new opera dedicated to Giovanni Battista, the city's cardinal legato and de facto ruler. The cardinal told us of his excitement at having the famous singer perform in his city. Siface behaved graciously to the Cardinal's face while secretly telling me--in the perfect arrogance of his high-pitched voice--how he'd play the noble fool for all he was worth. I'd already seen the cardinal's mistress hanging around Siface, and I hoped my master's arrogance wouldn't lead him to risk both our lives on a role he lacked any desire to consummate.

But that night--the day before Siface's final performance, before we fled the cardinal's palace, before the vampire killed Siface--Siface was anything but arrogant. I found him sitting in the dark on his bed, staring out the window at the town below.

"Ah, Uccellino," he said in his high voice. "Come here, little bird, and tell me what Cardinal Battista says of my performance."

"According to the servants, Cardinal Battista invited all of his friends in the nobility and clergy, and even a few of his enemies, to witness your opera."

"That's not the performance I meant," Siface said, smiling mischievously. "I suppose the cardinal has not learned of my true performance in his house." He laughed and fell backward in dramatic fashion across the bed. The other opera house singers and apprentices often laughed at Siface's bad acting, with one singer comparing Siface's performances to a dog in heat yelping for a mate. And they were correct--Siface was a poor actor. But people didn't come for his acting. They came for his singing.

But as Siface laughed at his little joke, I was horrified. "What have you done?" I asked, knowing that if Siface had done something to make the cardinal angry I'd also be at risk. "Do we need to flee tonight?"

"No. We'll flee after tomorrow's performance. I won't disappoint my public."

As Siface lay there, he looked at my anxious face and laughed. "Don't worry, Uccellino" he said. "Even the cardinal wouldn't harm a young boy like yourself."

I wasn't so sure. The cardinal had recently ordered a boy of 15 whipped to death for stealing from the church, and that boy was the same age as me. And depending on what Siface meant by the other "performance" he'd undertaken . . .

"Do you ever regret becoming one of us?" Siface asked.

"No, master. I am what I have become. And I enjoy the singing."

I thought Siface was merely speaking randomly as he often did. But then I noticed his eyes slicing into my own and his thin face tensing.

Unlike most castrati, Siface's body had never given way to extra flesh. He was as lean as when he'd first been cut decades before as a young boy. He was also strong, and given to beating me when I didn't give him the appropriate answer. Or when my singing practices went poorly. Which was often, as my voice had never developed as he'd desired.

As he stared at me I realized he wanted an honest response.

"I do like the singing," I admitted. "And having regular meals. And staying in the nobles' homes. But I wonder sometimes what I'd have become if I hadn't been cut."

"You'd have been poor. And hungry. That's why your family gave you to me."

Anger flowed around Siface's dark eyes and I prepared myself for a beating. Then he grinned. "I too have wondered what my own life would have been," he said. "Perhaps we both would have been better off. A castrati's life is nothing without his performance. We're only accepted as long as we're singing in an opera house or the Sistine Chapel or some dirt-poor cathedral in the countryside. Leave those performances behind and we're hated."

I didn't need Siface to tell me that. Only two days ago I'd been beaten up by several of the servants' children. They'd said I was neither a boy nor girl and didn't deserve to sleep in the cardinal's holy palace. I'd experienced similar treatment from others since Siface gelded me. And from what older castrati told me, the treatment would become worse as I grew older.

There was a knock at the door of our rooms and the handmaiden of the cardinal's mistress stepped inside. "My mistress needs speak with you," the handmaiden said. "An issue with your . . . performance . . . has come up."

Siface nodded. After I helped Siface wash his face and pull on a clean shirt, he hugged me close. "I am a capon," he whispered. "I am a rooster crowing about nothing even as the performance rolls ever on. Never forget. Without a performance, the world wouldn't allow people like us to even dream of existing."

The vampire Ferri sneaks me into the cardinal's palace through a tunnel hidden between perfectly trim gardens and a statue-filled fountain. The morning sun is near to bursting above the horizon, and when we finally enter the tunnel's depths, Ferri chuckles.

"You almost kept me out too long," the vampire says, glancing back at the approaching sunlight. "That would have been the perfect lesson about how sentimentality endangers even the worst of us."

As I follow Ferri down the tunnel I remember the servants' children who beat me bloody a few days ago. They'd been pretending to hunt vampires, with the boys carrying stakes and the girls shrieking about a vampire hidden in the palace. I'd asked to join their game, only to be beaten for daring to speak to them in my impossibly sing-song voice.

I now wonder if the children's game was their way of dealing with a truth they couldn't speak to others, let alone to a castrato.

The tunnel ends at a ladder and Ferri climbs up, opening a trapdoor into a dark, cool room. She lights a candle. The walls are thick stone blocks and the ceiling multiple arches of equally thick stone. The weight of the entire palace seems to squat upon my chest, making it nearly impossible to breathe, let alone sing.

Along one of the walls rests a wooden coffin laid across the stone floor. A heavy wooden door is embedded in the stone on the opposite side of the room, a massive crossbar blocking anyone outside the room from entering.

Ferri gestures toward her coffin. "You're welcome to sleep in my bed if you wish," she says. "If not, I will bring you bedding and you can make a place on the floor."

I glance at the barred door. "You don't want visitors, do you?"

"I really don't."

"Then why not simply kill me?"

Ferri grins her fake grin, her pale face reminding me of Siface. Ferri is thinner than Siface, and taller, with long fingers on what Siface would have called large painter's hands. Her voice is a little deeper than his, but I've no doubt she could imitate the sarcastic high-pitch laughs Siface gave noblemen and ladies when they asked why he'd become a castrato in the first place.

"I live for the performance," he'd tell the nobles. "There's no better way to honor God for making us what we are."

I want to tell Ferri this memory, but I notice she still hasn't said why she's yet to kill me. Instead of answering, she unbars the door and opens it.

"Wait here," she says. "I must report to my master."

"Will you tell the cardinal about me?" I ask, guessing her master and the cardinal are one and the same.

Ferri nods. "I doubt he'll order me to kill you since Siface was my target. But I could be wrong." She points toward the trapdoor. "You may still flee if you desire."

I remember what Siface told me--that there was no place for castrati in this world unless we're performing. I have nowhere to go. I remember the times I'd met the cardinal over the last few weeks. Better to take a chance on the cardinal allowing me to stay than begging from unknown townsfolk and villagers who may kill me as well as help.

Without waiting for my response, Ferri closes the door, leaving me alone in the belly of the palace.

The cardinal allows me to live in his palace, provided I stay in Ferri's room. "Cardinal Battista is as godly a master as I've had," Ferri says. "He'll make inquiries and see if any choirs desire a new castrato apprentice. But it'd be best if you aren't seen by the cardinal or his servants. The cardinal is … uneasy with how castrati are created."

I understand. I make many people uneasy.

Still, at least I have somewhere to stay. Ferri brings me food and watered wine from the cardinal's dinner table and bedding from his servants' quarters. Since I can't wander through the rest of the palace, I sleep during the day like Ferri does. When Ferri leaves through the trapdoor at night, I'm free to go outside. I suspect she wants me to simply run away while she is gone so she won't have to concern herself with my welfare.

But each time she returns I'm waiting for her in the little room.

To pass the time I practice my singing lessons. I imagine Siface standing behind me with his rod, striking my back for each wrong note and missed breath. I'm so far under the palace no one can hear me.

One night Ferri returns while I'm singing. She's so silent I don't hear her as I practice my trills. When I finally stop, she stares at me in disbelief.

"Was I that bad?" I ask.

"No, not bad . . . not exactly. But something is missing. Something I've heard in the singing of Giovanni Grossi and the other castrati."

I kick my bedding in anger. "That's what Siface used to tell me. My voice didn't develop as he'd hoped. He said I should never have been gelded and instead have stayed poor and died in some passing plague."

"Then why keep singing?"

"Because there's nowhere else for me to go. If you're castrato, you either perform or die. If I improve a little I might join the choir of some minor church or cathedral. At least then I'd be able to eat and live."

I remember Siface's stories of castrati who'd tried to return to their old lives. How they'd been murdered or simply disappeared. Even the church which supposedly loved our singing wouldn't protect us if we weren't performing. Too many people hated those who blurred the supposedly God-given separation of man and woman.

"That's why Siface kept you on," Ferri says. "Even when he realized your voice would never reach his expectations."

I nod. "I hated him, but he kept me alive."

Ferri sighs, and glances around the candle-lit room. "No more singing," she announces. "I mislike performances. Or at least performances without meaning. From now on you'll come with me in the evenings."

Ferri takes me each night into the streets of Bologna. Before, when I'd been with Siface, I'd barely seen the city as we travelled by carriage to Cardinal Battista's palace or the opera house. But Ferri shows me everything I've missed, from the Due Torri to the night markets to the grand city gates like the Porta Saragozza and the Porta Maggiore.

Ferri also talks about the history of Bologna. How before the city came under the sway of the Papal States the House of Bentivoglio ruled. During that long-ago time the arts flourished and women were freer than in any other city in Italy. Some even earned degrees from the university.

This last point seems like a strange thing to mention, and I ask Ferri if she'd been alive then. After all, I've heard vampires live for many centuries. But as with all things about her life, Ferri refuses to answer.

We do more than wander the city. Once or twice a week Ferri calls at a house or mansion or poor worker's hovel. During these times I stand silent--Ferri doesn't want my voice drawing speculation as to who I might be--and listen as she talks.

The conversations always go the same way. Ferri inquires about the health of the person we are visiting, and their family's health. She then discusses Cardinal Battista's expectations. Usually that's all it takes.

Only once does she say the cardinal is disappointed with someone. She says this to a squat little baker who has been agitating for the city's Senate to be responsible to the people instead of the cardinal. Because the baker is a pious man who tithes and is known for giving leftover bread to the poor, Ferri simply requests he show more discretion in his politics.

But when that suggestion doesn't stop the baker, Ferri and I return a second time to his bakery. Ferri sits down at a flour-coated table across from the baker while the man's children and wife watch from the front of their store. When Ferri says that I'd appreciate a slice of fresh filone, the baker's youngest daughter hurries over with the bread.

Her face is white from flour. Or fear. I'm unable to tell which.

"I like you," Ferri tells the baker. "The cardinal likes you. But you must stop involving yourself in matters which need not concern you."

"But signorina, this city has a long history. The people merely want to control a little of their destiny. Surely you know what this city could be if the cardinal would only grant us a taste of freedom."

Ferri smiles her fake smile, revealing her long canines. "I know our history. But history doesn't change the fact that Cardinal Battista is very disappointed in you. Surely you know enough about me to not want to disappoint the cardinal."

I don't need to guess what results from such disappointment, and neither does the baker.

"This is not just," the baker yells. "This is not holy. For the cardinal to allow such acts . . ."

Ferri bows her head slightly as if praying and repeats a Bible verse she once quoted to me when I asked how she'd become a vampire. "There are those whose teeth are swords, and whose jaws are set with knives to devour the poor from the earth and the needy from among mankind." Ferri raises her head back up and stares at the baker's throat. "Should I go on?"

The baker shakes his head and swears he'll never again intrude on politics.

Later that night, as we walk up the hill to the cardinal's palace, five men jump from the shadows, rapiers flashing in the darkness. Ferri pushes me out of the way and leaps at the men, moving faster than the rapiers can cut. Blood and screams sing over me until, when the road is once more silent, I walk back to Ferri.

Four of the men are dead. The fifth lays pale on the ground as Ferri holds the man's own rapier to his throat.

"Was it the baker?" Ferri asks. The man nods, his eyes never leaving the rapier's tip.

"Uccello, sing an aria," she tells me.

The man looks at me with pleading eyes, as if praying I'll intercede on his behalf.

"My singing isn't so good."

"It's better than anything he'll ever hear again."

I remember how Siface came alive in front of an audience. How he'd sworn to never cease performing until the moment he died.

I stare at the man and sing a quiet, haunting song of love and happiness. I hear all the flaws in my voice but the man doesn't care. His eyes simply plead with me to save him.

I'm halfway through the aria when Ferri slices the man's throat open with her teeth and drinks his blood.

The following night, as Ferri and I walk the city yet again, we pass by the baker's empty store. A small note in the window says the baker and his family are visiting sick relatives in the countryside.

Ferri seems satisfied by this coincidence.

If the cardinal is satisfied, I can't say.

And that's how things are with Cardinal Battista. As the weeks become months and I'm still living with Ferri, she shares with me many stories. About the history of Bologna. About the little everyday dramas which encircle the cardinal's servants and fellow clergy. She even shares her assignments with me. But of the cardinal himself she rarely speaks. He seems remote from anything in my life. I live in his palace but I have a closer connection to the stones in Ferri's room than to the cardinal himself.

One night Ferri and I stop by the town's cathedral after making our evening rounds. Normally we merely pass by the cathedral's massive vaulting stones, but this time I hear the sounds of a choir practicing inside. I can't help but be drawn to the singing.

I'd assumed Ferri couldn't enter a church, but she shrugs and follows me inside. "If consecrated places bothered me I wouldn't be working for a cardinal, now would I?" she whispers.

Inside we discover a castrato beginning his solo. I recognize him--Nicolini, a famous mezzo-soprano Siface performed with a few times. He must be performing at Bologna's opera house and decided to come by and practice with the choir.

I don't know what Ferri feels as we sit on the hard wooden benches and listen to the choir and Nicolini--I'd never seen the barest of emotions cross Ferri's face--but I know what I feel. I am envious of Nicolini. I want his life. I want his acclaim. I want to know that I fit in somewhere. That I might actually live up to the potential Siface saw before I was cut.

"Not all extraordinary voices come from extraordinary people," a voice behind me says.

Ferri doesn't seem surprised that someone now sits behind us, but I jump. I turn to see a clergy member wearing the elaborate vestments of a cardinal.

Cardinal Battista.

"Good to see you again, Uccello," the man says, smiling at me. "Are you enjoying my hospitality?"

I don't know how to respond. Ferri told me the cardinal didn't want to see me because castrati made him uneasy. But even though Ferri sits beside me she doesn't react to the cardinal or his words, instead staring at the choir.

Before us, Nicolini's voice launches into a solo aria.

"I didn't . . ." I stammer. "I mean . . ."

Cardinal Battista laughs softly. "Don't worry on what to say. I don't blame you for your master's indulgences."

"Performances," I say. "Siface called his affairs performances."

"Did he now? Well, I'll give him that. It was quite a performance. Such a performance that I ended up sending my mistress to a convent."

I glance back toward the choir as Nicolini leans into a long, drawn out note which hovers at the edge of his ethereal voice. Again I wonder why Siface played around with the cardinal's mistress, along with all the other men and women with whom he had affairs. Like me, when Siface was castrated the possibility of truly being with a man or woman was taken away forever. Yet he still played at these affairs.

The cardinal sees the confusion on my face and laughs again. "I was also puzzled by that, my young friend. But it turns out castrati are able to do any number of unnatural carnal sins. Simply not the one sin our church so obsesses on."

For a moment pain flutters the cardinal's eyes and I imagine how he felt when he learned his mistress had cheated on him. But then I remember the cardinal should have been celibate to begin with. And I've no doubt the cardinal's mistress hated being sent to a convent but gave in because she had no other choice. Just like I have no choice but to sing for a church which allows men like Cardinal Battista to rule.

If, that is, my voice ever becomes good enough for a church which so despises people like me.

I laugh softly. Maybe that's why Siface engaged in these performances--to show the world the insanity and hypocrisy which exists in all our lives.

Cardinal Battista smiles gently. I've been around Ferri's unemotional grins for so long that I've almost forgotten what a true smile looks like. "I have some unfortunate news," the cardinal says. "During your travels with Siface, did you happen to sing for the different choirs and opera houses across Italy?"

I nod. Siface was always asking me to sing for his peers. "Siface often sought advice on how to improve my voice," I say.

"I see. Well, it appears I won't be able to place you in one of the established choirs or opera houses. The men I've written to feel your voice isn't up to their standards."

His news doesn't surprise me, but it still hurts. "Thank you for asking."

"It's my duty to aid the needy. I so dislike how the castrati are created. God made humans in His divine image--to damage His body in this way is a true perversion. If you wish, we can pray together. Ask God to heal the evil which mankind turned you into."

I know Cardinal Battista means well. I have met many bishops and cardinals during my time with Siface, and as Ferri once told me, Cardinal Battista is indeed more godly than most.

But I still burn at Cardinal Battista calling me evil. While I'd once told Siface that I wish I'd never been gelded, I only said that because Siface understood. I hated Siface for what he'd done to me, but at least he'd felt the same burning tongs I'd endured. Not Cardinal Battista.

"Should we also pray for your sins, Cardinal Battista?" I ask.

"What do you mean?" the cardinal asks, his smile disappearing. Ferri rests her hand upon my knee and squeezes gently. She's warning me to be careful with my words, but I no longer care and press on.

"I have heard many priests speak about God's commandments. Isn't one of them Thou shall not kill? Yet that's what you did to Siface."

Cardinal Battista is silent but there are flames behind his eyes. The same flames I saw when the tongs reached down to burn my flesh.

But I'm unable to stop, as if the tongs have finally cut so deep into my voice that I can no longer keep the words inside. "And I've seen what you force Ferri to do. Is that truly God's will? If creating castrati is evil, what about vampires?"

Cardinal Battista flinches, looking like an altar boy caught drinking the church's holy wine. "I didn't create Ferri . . . one of my predecessors did that . . ."

"No, but you use her." I'm now yelling, causing Nicolini to pause in his singing. The choir director starts to walk over to see if Cardinal Battista needs assistance, but the cardinal waves him off.

Ferri sits silently, her hand still resting on my knee but no longer squeezing, no longer trying to stop my words. Cardinal Battista leans forward, his composure returned and his anger as bright as God's wrath. "Do you know how to create a vampire?" he asks softly. Even this question doesn't elicit a response from Ferri.

I shake my head--No, I don't know.

"The peasants believe a vampire must bite you, or that the dead return if you don't stake their heart. Nonsense. We create a vampire the same way someone created you, my little castrato. But instead of gelding a young boy, we neuter the emotions. We use ritual and magic and cut a man's spirit instead of his body. The procedure is described in the apocryphal Visio sancti Pauli, but until I became cardinal legato I didn't know the church could truly do it. Not until I was introduced to your friend here."

Cardinal Battista shivers as he glances at Ferri, as if he dislikes what she is. Ferri still hasn't responded to Cardinal Battist's words. She simply stares at Nicolini as the famed singer again slides into song.

"But the problem of vampires is the problem of castrati," Cardinal Battista continues. "Just because you cut someone doesn't mean they'll turn. How many castrati are cut each year? Thousands, at least, but so few become a Siface. It's the same with vampires. One of my predecessors two centuries ago cut Ferri, but since then all the church's attempts to replicate her have failed. The Lord alone knows which person will become a castrati opera star or a vampire."

The cardinal glances up at Nicolini, whose large lungs are holding the same note as tens of seconds, then a half minute, flow by. The cardinal shakes his head.

"So Siface called what he did a performance?" The cardinal clasps both of my shoulders with his hands and squeezes hard. "Well, you are my performance now, little castrato. I will order that if you're seen away from Ferri's side you are to be imprisoned and tortured. You will continue living with this vampire. Until, that is, the day I finally tell her to kill you."

Cardinal Battista leans over and whispers in my ear. "Or perhaps I should try cutting your emotions too. Perhaps you could be the first person to become both castrato and vampire."

I shiver. I curse myself for speaking the truth to this man without the power to protect myself. "Ad Dei gloriam," I whisper.

"Ad Dei gloriam," Cardinal Battista echoes.

With that the cardinal stands and walks to the front of the cathedral. Nicolini stops singing as the cardinal steps up and hugs him. I hear the cardinal say Nicolini's voice is even better than the late Siface's, may he rest in peace.

I run from the cathedral, hating myself for crying but unable to pretend the tears are anything but my own.

Ferri finds me back in her room. I've barred the main door and moved my bedding directly over the trapdoor. Ferri bangs twice before pausing.

"I'm strong enough to destroy this trapdoor and you with it," she says. "But I have no desire to do so."

I roll off the trapdoor. Ferri enters before closing the trapdoor again.

"Why did you return here?" she asks.

"Where else can I go? You heard what the cardinal said. If I try to leave I'll be killed."

"It will take time for his order to carry over the city and countryside. If you run fast enough, you might stay ahead of it."

"Then what? If I open my mouth people will know what I am. Outside of a choir or opera house I'll be killed, or starve to death."

I sit on the edge of Ferri's coffin. After a moment's hesitation she sits beside me. While no emotions play on her face, she seems interested in my fate.

"Would you really kill me?" I ask.

"He's my master. Just as the cardinal before him was my master, and the cardinals before that. I've no choice but to obey my master in all things."

Tears again flow down my face. To my shock, Ferri hugs me and wipes the tears with her cold hands. When my tears don't stop, she picks me up in her strong arms and lays me down in her coffin before stretching out beside me. She holds me there, her touch lacking the emotion of the times my family hugged me, or the hug Siface gave me before the barber cut me, but I still lean into her body and cry until I'm exhausted and can cry no more.

As Ferri holds me she tells me of her life two centuries ago, before becoming a vampire. While not one of the Bentivoglios, who ruled Bologna at the time, she'd still been tied by blood to a minor noble family. Her father was a noted architect and her mother a painter. They'd encouraged her to attend the university, something women in no other city in Italy could do.

She was nearing her final year of studies when Pope Julius II besieged the city and captured it. Bologna was now part of the Papal States with a cardinal legato in charge.

Ferri and her family were imprisoned, as were many leading members of the city. All Ferri had to do to be released was pledge loyalty to the Pope and the cardinal legato, but she refused. She cursed the cardinal. Called him an evil man driven by inhuman desires. Said he wasn't a true Christian.

So she was cut.

She and the other resisters were taken to the lowest levels of the cardinal's palace and chained to the rack. No part of their flesh was harmed. Instead, the cardinal prayed over their bodies one by one, asking the Lord to remove the emotions tainting their souls.

Then the cardinal held a sacred knife over their heads. The knife flickered as if by magic, its blade like a reflection which vanished and reappeared depending on how one looked upon it. One by one the cardinal plunged the knife into the prisoners' heads. The knife didn't cut their bones or flesh or draw a single drop of blood, but still they screamed.

Everyone else chained to the rack died. But Ferri survived. She felt the ethereal knife cut each of her emotions one by one until she felt nothing at all. Then the cardinal branded her with his seal so she would always obey the orders of himself and his successors.

"I'm sorry," Ferri says. "Cardinal Battista has trapped you just like that cardinal centuries ago trapped me."

I reach around Ferri's cold flesh and hug her tight. Even if neither of us feels excitement from our touch, we can still hold each other until it's time to leave this room.

The next night Ferri and I again roam the city. That's when we notice the baker has returned to his small shop. As we step inside, the warm scent of baking bread wraps around us.

Ferri walks across the shop and sits down at the flour-coated table. The baker and four men from the neighborhood already sit there. Other men stand behind them, all armed with rapiers and clubs.

"I hope your family are still in the countryside," Ferri says.

"They are," the baker replies.

"That is good. I wouldn't want them to be harmed."

The men around the baker grumble and tense as the baker slams his fist on the table, raising a puff of flour. "Don't torture us like this," he demands. "Attack and be done with it."

"Cardinal Battista thinks you fled the city, so I've no orders to kill you. Unless you attack me first . . ."

The baker laughs nervously, followed by several of his men. Everyone relaxes, no one wanting to be the first to test Ferri's strength. "So what happens now?" the baker asks. "Do you return tomorrow night after Cardinal Battista orders you to kill us?"

"I imagine that will happen," Ferri says. "The cardinal is predictable in his response to anyone who challenges him."

The baker nods to this truth as Ferri stands. "I suggest you don't flee this time," she tells the baker. "The cardinal will likely order me to find you no matter how far you go. The farther you run the more people I'll be forced to kill to find you." She looks at the other men. "I doubt he'll order me to hunt down your men if they flee."

The baker says he understands and Ferri and I leave his shop. As we walk up the hill back to the palace, I beg her not to tell Cardinal Battista the baker has returned.

"I've no choice," Ferri says. "He'll order me to tell all I've heard tonight. And tomorrow he'll have me kill the baker."

I remember how Cardinal Battista would one day order Ferri to kill me. "Do you think the cardinal will tell you to kill me tonight?"

"I doubt it, Uccello. He will most likely wait until you've almost forgotten what I am. That's when he'll order me to strike."

That morning I lie beside Ferri in her coffin but don't fall asleep. When I'm convinced she won't wake, I climb out of the coffin and into the tunnel and walk to the city.

I wear a hat and scarf so no one will recognize me--remembering well Cardinal Battista's order to imprison and torture me--but as I enter the baker's neighborhood I still imagine people are watching me. That a soldier or magistrate will arrest me at any moment.

It's almost a relief when I finally reach the baker's shop and stride inside.

The baker and several of his men are still sitting around the table discussing what to do. They fall silent when they see me.

"I thought vampires couldn't go out in the sun," the baker says.

"I'm no vampire," I say in my unmistakable voice. The men curse and one of them calls me a damned capon. The baker tells the man to shut up.

"Why are you here?" the baker asks. "We've all heard the cardinal's order about the young castrato. If we turn you in to the magistrate, maybe the cardinal will call off his pet vampire."

"You know he won't."

The men nod to the sad truth of this.

"I can't help your fight against Cardinal Battista," I say. "But I can help you stop Ferri. Maybe."

The baker and his men recoil from me when I approach the table and sit down--as if castration is something they might catch from merely a touch--but still they hear me out.

I'm sitting at the baker's table when Ferri enters the shop that evening. All the other men have fled the city. Except for the baker, who sits beside me.

On the table before me rests a single rapier.

"Uccello," Ferri says with a nod. "I'd hoped you had escaped. I see I was wrong."

"There's nowhere for me to go. But I might be able to help you."

Ferri looks from the rapier to me. The baker holds his hands well away from the weapon, not wanting to force Ferri to attack him prematurely.

"I'm only here to kill the baker," she says. "He hasn't ordered me to kill you, Uccello. But if anyone attacks me, I have standing orders to defend myself."

I smile as I stand slowly and pick up the rapier. "I'm not attacking you," I say, holding the tip in front of me. "I'm helping you. I'm freeing you from the evil fate the church forced onto you." I begin to walk toward Ferri, aiming the sword at her heart. All she has to do is let me free her from this life.

Instead, Ferri laughs, a forced laugh with no emotion behind it but a laugh all the same. "Do you expect me to impale myself on your blade?" she asks. "Will you sing a dirge for me as I turn to dust and blow away, all my centuries of suffering released because you cared enough to kill me?"

Ferri shakes her head, still laughing. The baker and I stare at each other, unsure what to do now.

"I like you, Uccello," she says. "You're still a little boy who thinks boyish thoughts, but I like you."

Before I can react, Ferri dashes past me and grabs the baker, snapping his neck. I scream as the squat man falls backwards onto the flour-coated tiles.

Ferri snatches the rapier from my hands and taps the blade on the top of my head. "I don't want to die," she says. "While I feel no emotions, I still want to live. All people are like that."

She hands the rapier back to me as she feeds on the baker's blood. When she finishes, I follow her back to the palace.

"You know, of course, Cardinal Battista will order me to tell what happened tonight. When he learns what you tried to do, he'll hurt you. If you're lucky, he'll order me to kill you. If he's in a foul mood, he'll cut your emotions and try to turn you into a creature like myself."

I nod, dragging the rapier's tip across the stepping stones of the tunnel as we climb to Ferri's room. But instead of going to sleep like we usually do, Ferri opens the door to the rest of the palace.

"I must report to Cardinal Battista. Would you like to hear what I tell him?"

"I don't need to hear the cardinal order my death."

Since irritation is an emotion, Ferri doesn't look irritated. But she stares at me as if I've given the wrong answer. "Do you know that in the past I not only carried out the cardinals' dirty work but also protected them? But Cardinal Battista dislikes what I am. Hates me as much as he hates the castrati. Oh, he uses my services, just as he'll have a castrato sing for him. But he doesn't want either of us around more than necessary."

I nod. That's why Ferri lives in this room, as far from the cardinal as she can be while still staying in his palace.

"And?" I ask, unsure what she's trying to say.

"And I don't protect this cardinal. He has guards to do that. But not me. He's never ordered me to protect him. I can't personally harm him, but I don't have to protect him."

I finally understand and grip my rapier tight. I follow Ferri to the cardinal's room.

I should have known Ferri would have access to secret rooms and stairways--after all, the Pope's representative in Bologna can't have a vampire walking through the hallways beside priests and servants and passing visitors.

By the time we reach Cardinal Battista's bedchamber on the top floor it is nearly midnight. Ferri glances out the window at the lights of the town below.

"How did it go, Ferri?" Cardinal Battista asks, sitting up in his bed and stretching. "Hurry and tell me. I've a busy day tomorrow and don't want to miss sleep on account of something like you."

"The baker is dead," Ferri says. "The baker's men had already fled the city."

"I see. Anything else happen in town?"

"Yes. Uccello was waiting for me in the baker's shop. He tried to convince me to let myself be killed. I suppose he wanted to stop my reign of unholy terror."

Cardinal Battista laughs. "I'll have to do something about him sooner rather than later. Ah well. Such are the difficulties of dealing with those cast beyond God's grace."

The cardinal stands out of bed, his nightgown hanging loose from his body as he squats over a chamber pot. Ferri looks at me and I know this is my only chance. The cardinal hasn't seen me yet. He hasn't called for his guards or ordered Ferri to kill me.

I remember Siface and how he never turned away from a performance. I walk silently across the room and stab the rapier through Cardinal Battista's back. He screams. I clamp my hand over his mouth, desperate to keep him from ordering Ferri to help him. The rapier breaks as we fall to the floor but I stab him over and over with the broken blade until he stops moving and stares at me with uncurious eyes.

Two guards and a servant enter the bedchamber from the main door. The guards curse and charge at me with their rapiers.

I stand straight, ready to die with honor like Siface did in hundreds of operatic performances. But instead, Ferri rips through the guards, her teeth and fingers slicing necks and hearts from flesh and bone. The servant turns to run but Ferri leaps onto him and latches her mouth over his neck, riding him like a horse as she drains his blood.

When she finishes, she laughs her emotionless laugh as she closes and latches the door. "No one else knows of my hidden stairway," she says. "I suggest you flee before the other guards arrive."

"We can both go."

Ferri gazes at me as if contemplating the offer. "You've seen what I do to stay alive," she says. "The cardinal rationalized my killings as being for the church's greater good. You'll have no such lies to sooth your conscience."

I look at the cardinal's dead body. I should feel shame at breaking God's most powerful commandment, but I don't. "I stayed with Siface even though I hated him. And I don't hate you. More the opposite."

Ferri walks over and hugs me. Her hug is without emotion, as if she's acting in an opera no one will remember once the performance ends. But I still like that she makes the effort to hold me.

We hear shouts from the hall and someone bangs on the door. Releasing me, Ferri opens the cardinal's armoire and removes a small bag of gold, which she tosses to me along with a cloak. "We can't come back," she says. "The church will search for me, and another cardinal will eventually be appointed. If I'm found and the new cardinal orders me to kill you, I'll have no choice."

I nod. Even though Ferri is covered in blood and doesn't feel emotions, I grab her hand. I open the hidden passageway and we hurry down the dark stairs.

"Uccello," Ferri whispers. "Would Siface approve of our performance?"

I remember Siface's words: I am a capon. I am a rooster crowing about nothing even as the performance rolls ever on.

It does indeed.

As I follow Ferri out of the palace I whisper an aria Siface taught me, not caring if my voice will never be as good as he'd dared to dream.

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