“you really are an exceptional dancer…”

…offered Miss Airoldi, slipping into the arms of her escort.

“And you move with the gracefulness of a rose petal lifted by the wind, my dear Clorinda,” answered the man, holding her again after a short pirouette.

“Anyway, I have to tell you that you haven’t been fair to me,” the woman continued, staring with a mischievous gaze at the half-covered face, a short breath away from her. “I have willingly revealed my name, although of you, I only know of your great talent for dance.”

Suddenly the music stopped, a muted applause was granted to the string quartet seated on the small wooden stage, by the twenty or so noblemen and noblewomen adorned with spectacular masks clustered in the center of the huge ballroom. Miss Airoldi joined in that sad tribute, without taking her eyes off her unknown companion. The violins started playing again. “I hope you will grant me the honor of one last dance, my dear,” the man asked of her with a slight reverence.

“Actually, I’m still a bit overheated,” the woman commented, pulling out a large fan, embroidered with golden threads. “I’d like a breath of fresh air.”

The man bowed his head condescendingly, then he offered his arm to the lady and they paraded through the room under the curious eyes of many guests. One of the servants passed him a cane, closing the window behind them once they were both outside. They found themselves alone on a large balcony, overlooking the shores of the Ligurian gulf, with the light of a pale full moon reflecting off the waters of the port of Genoa.

“I love the darkness of the night and the mysteries it hides,” Clorinda whispered, scanning the horizon, “but what I love even more is when these mysteries are revealed,” she said with a mischievous smile before removing the fine lace mask that covered her eyes, revealing all her enchanting beauty. “Now I hope that you will do the same.”

“I’m sorry to disappoint you, my darling, but there are no exciting mysteries in the middle of the night,” the man contradicted with a gloomy tone, “only death, destruction and piles of corpses infected by the plague, waiting to be burned at the corner of the streets in the grim slums of this city.”

Clorinda’s face paled as a sudden gust of chill wind ran down her back. “I am horrified by your irreverence,” declared the woman visibly agitated. “And I have no intention of listening to you any further, so I salute you,” she concluded angrily. She was about to leave, when the lights in the ballroom flickered off, followed by the shrill cries of several women echoing in the darkness.

“I’m afraid that this will not be possible, my darling,” said the man while fiddling with his cane, ignoring the screams growing more intense, along with many other agitated noises best-left unidentified.

“My goodness! What’s going on in there? Call the guards!” pleaded the woman panting in terror.

“It is incredible how you aristocrats always ask for help, but you are never willing to grant it. Not even to those you called “friends” until the day before,” replied the man with a grave tone. “No, my dear Clorinda, today you are alone, just like I was when the plague crept into my home, first killing most of my servants, and then my dear wife, leaving me dying with no more wealth to my name.”

“What are you talking about?” Clorinda asked with a terrified expression. “I don’t know you, who are you?!”

The man remained silent for a few moments, even ignoring some windows that shattered a short distance from the isolated couple. Then he turned to the woman, “I am the cold touch of death that comes at night. I am fear, I am terror. I am every worst nightmare come true.” He took off his mask, revealing half of his face covered by pustular scars. Horrified by that gruesome view, Clorinda Airoldi fled in terror, until an unseen force knocked her to the ground. Her screams mingled with the many others inside the house, creating an inhuman gurgling that, after a few moments stopped completely. It was only then that the flames of the candles on the large chandeliers flickered back to life, illuminating the immense ballroom and the horror it held. All those noblemen and noblewomen, who until just recently were joyously dancing, were laying lifeless on the ground, with wide open glassy eyes and a face contracted into an expression of pure terror. Going back in through a shattered window, the man weaved among the corpses without giving them the merest notice, until a familiar voice forced him to stop.

“Think that before that terrible day you had never shown yourself being a bitter person.”

Incredulous, the man froze to the sight of a beautiful smiling young woman with long dark hair, appearing in the middle of the room. “Francesca, finally you are here,” he commented almost touched. “I waited so long for you to appear in one of my “dreams” even if I never wanted you to see all this.”

“Don’t be sorry, my beloved. You have followed your path as always, which has now brought you back to our city. Now the time has come, you need to go further.” The man looked at her with a puzzled expression while she continued. “I’ve always been by your side, even if you couldn’t see me. Wherever your revenge was unleashed, I was there, and I saw your power growing day by day. Anyway, what you have learned to master over the years is just a glimpse of what you could achieve. There is something much greater waiting for you, in Turin, a power so immense that it could even allow us to embrace once again.”

The man was astonished, then he began to walk towards his beloved, seeing her slowly disappear, and when he came close to her, there was nothing left, except for a faint breath of sweet-smelling wind. Suddenly a servant emerged from one of the side doors, stopping and staring at the carpet of bodies lying on the ground. Then his expression wrinkled into a grimace of pain, until he collapsed to the ground with two deep wounds on his back. Behind him appeared a sinister wooden puppet, with a horned head, armed with two bloody knives. The man in the center of the room passed a quick mental command to the little being who walked towards him with an awkward gait, tiny bells ringing on his back. He didn’t like killing in that bloody way, but now he had to save his energy for something much more important. He returned the mask to his face and left the villa, with only one thought in his head: to reach the city of Turin as soon as possible.

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