Disclaimer: The wonderful world of Stravaganza belongs to Mary Hoffman.

In the Heart of the City

Damn it, it was harder than he had expected. It would have been easier if she were an old hag, ugly, spitting hatred and curses. But she wasn't. She looked just like an ordinary girl – curly dark hair, big eyes wide with fear. A tiny little thing that looked as if she had missed too many meals in her life. She didn't look vile, not even angered. She just seemed uncomprehending, as if she had no idea why she had been taken to this room, why she was tied to this chair and inquired – an inquiry that Fabrizio was sure Filippo would love to aid with a few slaps.

But the fact was a fact: even in the dim light of the cell, the shadows were clear enough, all three of them: Fabrizio's, Filippo's, and Rinaldo's. The girl in the chair cast none, although the dark frame of the chair was visible.

"Luciano Crinamorte and Rodolfo Rossi. What do you know about them?"

"Luciano Crinamorte is going to marry the Duchessa of Belezza," she repeated for what Fabrizio thought must be the hundredth time for the last few hours. "I have heard about him. And Rodolfo Rossi is the Regent of Belezza, a wise an capable man."

"That much, we know," Rinaldo growled. "Tell me something new. Tell me about the Stravaganti."

The girl licked her cracked lips. Soon, she would be unable to speak anymore, unless she restored her strength by some Stravaganti magic. "I don't know anything about these Stravaganti," she insisted stubbornly. "It's the first time I hear that word. What do they do?"

"That's what we'd like to find out," Fabrizio said calmly.

The sound of his voice made her jump, tied as she was. Fabrizio quickly stepped forward to stop the chair from toppling over, along with its occupant. In doing so, he involuntarily touched the captive's arms. She was warm, not cold as he had imagined a sorceress would be, although his touch made her skin turn cold. For some reason, he seemed to be scaring her more than the other two. It was strange, since he was the only one who hadn't threatened or abused her in a verbal way… yet. He would do it if needed, but he'd really prefer that it would not come to this. He did not like the idea of abusing a woman, especially as pitiful as this one. These Stravaganti must be really powerful, he thought. Despite his father's words about seeing Falco, despite all the reports confirming their abilities, he had never truly believed it, not as he did now. If he had seen the witch in the street, he would have passed straight past her, dismissing her as a mere peasant girl. She looked so harmless.

But then, so had Beatrice. The thought of the Duchessa of Classe send a surge of fury through his body. Beatrice the traitor. Beatrice the liar. Defying his plans for her, denying that he knew what was best for both the family and her and running off with the Nucci – the Nucci. Even now, he could not admit to himself that he missed her. But he did. He missed them all – Beatrice, his father, Carlo and Falco. Caterina and Bino were a great joy for him, but he missed the family that he had grown up with and lost in such a short interval. Gaetano was all he had left and sometimes he felt that he was too soft with him. But he couldn't force himself to be harsher. Because he needed an ally in the family – and sometimes Gaetano was a useful ally – and because of the memories of other, better, merrier times.

The Stravaganti were to blame. They had taken Falco, one way or another. They had killed his father. They had encouraged Beatrice in this horrendous act of hers. They had put a spoke in his wheel about Classe and the Gate people. He would learn what he needed. He'd learn the secrets of this other world no matter what – or who – it would take.

"Why do the Stravaganti have no shadows?" Rinaldo asked. "Why do you have none?"

"I don't know," she whispered. "I just… don't have one."

A slap in her face made her wail and grit her teeth against the pain. Fabrizio realized that he was gritting his own teeth, too. A dark red stain quickly spread over her left cheek. No doubt that till tomorrow, it would turn bluish. A thin red line dripped from the corner of her mouth. Her blood is red, Fabrizio thought with some sort of amazement. She has red blood like any normal person. Her tiny face and emaciated body made the bruise look more disgusting, as if someone had done it to a child. And the Grand Duke could see that it would have no effect – it would not make her more talkative. But then, Filippo had never been a clever man. He just enjoys cruelty, Fabrizio thought with a mild distaste. I use cruelty if needed, but I do not enjoy it. Usually there are better ways to break someone's will.

He looked at the girl, his eyes turned to narrow slits. She had scarcely blinked at the slap, despite the bruise and the blood that kept trickling. This girl knew something about violence. Slaps and beatings would not crush her. They needed something more… refined.

Fabrizio rummaged through her scarce possessions. Laura tried not to breathe heavily when she saw him taking the little silver pocket looking-glass. He turned it in his hands and inspected it closely. "That night be some sort of talisman," Rinaldo said. "They all seem to have different ones."

"Yes," Fabrizio agreed. "That might be it."

And then he left the mirror back in place and went closer to the girl. "Undress her," he said.

The wretched girl looked as if she was going to faint. Or scream. Good. His cousins gawked at him as if they thought he was planning a rape here and now. Idiots.

She did scream when she found herself naked. With attention that was almost insulting, the Grand Duke inspected her scrawny body, her boyish hips, protruding ribs and almost nonexisting breasts. She must be really starving.

Laura bit her bleeding lip, trying to stifle further screams. She had never felt so helpless, scared and humiliated as she did now.

"So," the Grand Duke said softly. "How do you travel to this other world?"

The door was suddenly thrown wide open. The three men turned to see four guards.

"We found two more, Your Grace," one of them said, eyes wide at the sight that greeted him, but mouth silent. It was none of his business what the Grand Duke did with his female prisoners. "They have no shadows."

"Very well," Fabrizion said, irritated at being interrupted just when he was on the brink of breaking her obstinacy. "Leave them here and take your leave, I'll deal with them later."

The guards pushed the two hooded friars with bounded wrists in the cell and left. The two figures fell on the floor and stayed like this, unable to stand upright. The Grand Duke did not even look at his new captives – he thought it might be useful for them to see the state that their fellow conspirator was in. That might make them more talkative.

"Where were we? Ah yes, the travel. How do you do it?"

But the girl seemed to have regained some of her confidence. She shook her head. Furious, Fabrizio strode to her and grabbed her face roughly in his palm. "Speak,' he hissed but his was not the only voice that filled the room.

"Leave her alone!" one of the new captives cried and the other yelled, "Don't strike her again, Fabrizio! Do not strike her ever again!"

The three di Chimichi looked at each other in horror and shock. For a moment, no one moved. Then, the Grand Duke slowly moved to the second friar. When there was only a step separating them, he hesitated, as if afraid what he was going to find out. Then he abruptly knelt tore the hood from the captive's face and clutched his chest.

"Falco!" he said faintly. The figure that was lying prostrated in front of him tried to move his hands. Sielntly, as in a dream, Fabrizio took his dagger out and cut the ropes.

A. N. That might be a twoshot. I feel like writing a second chapter whenever I have the time. Anyone interested?