Baldo, as his friends had come to call him, remembered very clearly the events of that evening, even though they had passed more than ten months prior.
He had returned from the market where he sold his trinkets to space tourists, come to Jupiter to see Serrenis in all its splendor. To gaze upon rows of carbon-blown glass (for a price!), to ride the gonds through the vapor canals. Serrenis saw the dark side of the planet for thirteen months, and was in the sun for only three. It was this precious span of time when business boomed and Baldo was there to reap a harvest for his family. He sold figurines, small sculptures of Serrenis’ landmarks. The leaning tower, the polka-dotted gond operators, the white marble palace he now found himself imprisoned in.
How they liked to bargain. There were guidebooks published that said the local merchants reveled in such exchanges; this was not actually the case. An attempt to talk down the price of a kerchief or a silken tie was usually met with a grunt or, in some cases a terse “No,” then the presentation of the merchant’s back, a sign to seek business elsewhere. Baldo, perhaps ahead of the curve, saw an opportunity here. Where others (the Gypsy woman who often set her kiosk next to his, for example) would turn down a sale due to an overzealous tourist, Baldo relished in taking the opportunity to peddle his wares. Make the husband from Ganymede think he was doing himself some sort of service. It was the day-to-day, the coming and going of the tourists that Baldo found satisfying, not necessarily making the highest profit in the piazza. Other merchants took note -- Baldo often had the most crowded kiosk -- but a part of their dignity would have been lost along with the few dollars they’d sacrifice in a bargain. Baldo, like a gentleman, never met the Gypsy woman’s gaze after parting with a tourist fulfilled, for that would have given away his own sense of enjoyment. Instead, he kept to himself.
He did not live in Serrenis proper, but instead on one of its outlying islands. Most of the population of the city center was tourist-based. The actual residents could not afford the high prices of the city so most worked as hoteliers, waiters, merchants, like Baldo. And at the end of every day they would take inventory, close their kiosks, and make their way home for the night, only to return the next day and continue their wholesaling. Baldo took a vapor taxi half an hour out of the city.
His home was less than modest, but with three children and a wife who couldn’t work because they could not afford to send the kids to school, this was all he could offer them. Baldo was often struck by his own lack of monetary gain when it came to his neighbors, his friends. He didn’t have the fortitude or the confidence to change professions (he’d tried, for one day, to operate a gond but the results were as close to disastrous as one could come). Like many others living off the peak season in Serrenis, he resigned himself to the lower strata he was born into. Baldo’s father, grandfather, great grandfather, all the rest, were merchants. The game of buying and selling was the stuff that coursed through him; his very life-blood.
Baldo noticed the setting sun behind the ramshackle apartment he called home before he noticed the open front gate. The fact that he didn’t need to undo the latch and nudge the thing open with his thigh didn’t occur to him until everything was already said and done. Had it given him pause then, would he have turned and gone back the way he came?
No, the first real sign of things to come was the bottom door pane, cracked open, the security latch dangling in front of it. Forced entry, to be sure. And the beeping.
When Baldo found the front door unlocked, the rational part of his brain became overwhelmed by the more emotional, animal part. The part that screamed out for Masha and the kids; the part that jumbled his words before they made their way to his lips so they only came out as moans; the part he wished had kicked in at the unlatched front gate. Still, that beeping from beyond.
Baldo made his way into the kitchen, where utensils were scattered across the floor like a painting he’d once seen. The beeping from the oven, declaring to nobody that whatever was inside desperately needed to be extracted. This was Baldo’s first task. He shut the oven off (silenced the beeping) and opened her up to a gust of black smoke from whatever Masha had prepared, now burned beyond digestibility. He singed his hands on the pot taking it out.
He did manage to croak, “Masha!” amidst the smoke. He was stifled by a coughing fit, then he set off toward the dining room where the radio wall was also on. He shut that off and paused, hands trembling from the rush of adrenaline, listening to the sounds of his home. Absolutely silent. So he climbed the stairs, strewn with glass from a vase in the upstairs hallway. Dirt and plant debris fell under his boots as he stomped up two-by-two.
A pounding in his ears. Bathroom; empty. The children’s room; empty (was that blood on the carpet -- yes, that was blood, quietly drying, on the carpet). The one room left, he and Masha’s bedroom, the last place he looked (always the last place) was where he found them. Lined up, neatly arranged on the mattress, stripped bare for some reason. Quiet, like the rest of the house.
- - -
There was too much to remember after that. So much that Baldo was still missing great big pieces of it, even ten months later. Had he called the police? Yes. Had they come immediately? Yes. Did he spend hours recounting for them? Yes. Did they believe a single word of his story? No.
There was one shattering moment for Baldo that came the very instant he was convicted of three counts of murder in the court of the Supreme Chancellor. All the advisors were there, each from the tiny islands that made up Serrenis. The Supreme Chancellor himself was at the center of it all, sitting higher than the rest on his gilded throne. He even made eye contact with Baldo several times.
“Your honor, I would like to remind the court that Seniori Baldasarrio was seen by three, I say three, eyewitnesses leaving the piazza du San Argo--”
The Gypsy woman, now Baldo’s foe, pursed her lips at the prosecutor's gesticulations.
“--who all, remember, saw him leave that very piazza at least half an hour before six, much earlier than normal. I will remind the court, his Honor, of Seniori Baldasarrio’s outstanding tax debts, made public by anonymous submission to the Archive. This illuminates a clear motive, as the death of his family would have made him eligible to have his finances become a burden of this very city-state. That is a gift we do not grant under the pretense of murder.”
A nod of the Supreme Chancellor’s head, just the faintest of motions, signaled for his advisors to adjourn, to converse. But there was little discussion. A textbook fraud, in the eyes of the committee. There had been numerous attempts in the past, countless ones to come.
Baldo was sentenced very soon thereafter. The rest of his life delegated to the mines on Jupiter’s core; a life not worth living, regardless of how short it would be. The core was a wasteland, an in-between world where heaven was smote by the darkness of toxic vapors and thousand-mile an hour gusts that could evaporate a man. Baldo was surely condemned to death disguised as a fair sentence.
The palace guards were quick to escort Baldo out of the courtroom (there was nobody there to mourn his conviction) and through an antechamber into a larger room that seemed to have no exit other than the door they had entered from. The floor was a checkerboard optical illusion, giving any visitor the impression that they might be falling. Lest they look up, where a mural of angelic extraterrestrials touching palms and descending from one of Jupiter’s tempests above -- a calming image that had no such effect on Baldo. Instead, he concerned himself with a large reflecting mirror, with two wardrobes, great big looming closets, that stood on either side of it.
All he saw was the haggard face of Arriago Baldasarrio; once merchant, husband, father. Now, convicted murderer. Was this hunched image of himself to be his last? Were there mirrors that could judge as harshly where he was going? Were there even mirrors there at all?
This shattering moment came when one of the wardrobes lurched open and a palace guard emerged from within, from the rear where an inky blackness stood in place of the wood paneling.
Baldo was summoned by this guard, and another who appeared from the shadows. At first he thought the whole scheme to be an optical illusion (Wake up, Baldo, your eyes are playing tricks on you!) But he adjusted his point of view as he slowly stepped toward the gaping wardrobe, the light from the window behind him bloomed, and the path before him was illuminated. A staircase, cut from stone, made a steep ascent into the upper reaches of the palace walls. He climbed the stairs and, as the wardrobe behind him sealed off any light from the palace proper, Baldo’s entire impression of Serrenis, it’s people, and the way they had been governed through the ages was dashed against any semblance of hope.
- - -
Ten months had passed since. In that time, Baldo had became aware of many other secrets that the palace was hiding.
It seemed Baldo’s doom was hovering before him. The people of Serrenis, precariously situated on that ribbon of breathable air, were also at the mercy of Jupiter’s variant weather conditions. Such was the great storm impeding Baldo’s descent to the core. A pink, swirling thing that caused the poison clouds beneath Serrenis to funnel, giving the impression that the entire city, glistening mechanisms and all, could be swallowed whole at any moment.
So he waited...
And in this waiting, Baldo’s emotions betrayed him. He utterly lost his sense of what was real and what he might be imagining out of thin air. The staircase leading impossibly up was one thing, but what it lead to was quite another.
In the piazza, in his previous life, Baldo sold small trinkets of the city, carved from wood by his own hand during the dark months. Subsequently, he had studied all of the landmarks the tourists paid good money to see. The leaning tower, it’s undulating roof, it’s graduated arches. Zulé bridge, sloped like a mountain, golden edifices gleaming. The Supreme Chancellor’s palace, in all its splendor, was the hardest to reproduce with a paring knife; it required most of his attention. Some days he would have his lunch and a stroll, observing the building from afar. He would toss the wrapping Masha had placed his sandwich in, then walk painfully close up to the stone walls. He knew the façade of the entrance so well (118 steps), knew the number of stained carbon windows by heart (38 in all). Baldo watched with great curiosity as members of the Supreme Chancellor’s court came and went, discussing matters of Serrenis’ economy, how to properly irrigate its canals. He would lean close as they exited the palace, but always their conversation eluded him. Baldo was fascinated by what they did inside, how they kept Serrenis a well-oiled machine, a stand-out from most of the other Jupiterian settlements, spoiled embarrassments to the Republic of Planets writ large.
He remembered his fine attention to detail as the palace guards marched him up the stone staircase that first time. He could see out of one of the 38 stained glass windows as the stairs cut their path behind it, the colorful frontage masking the very passage he was taking.
The stairs led to a sweltering chamber where Baldo was processed, stripped of his civilian clothes, shaved of his hair. Even here, Baldo could see several of the refined glass windows, their yellows, reds and greens casting shadows on the room like a kaleidoscope. From the outside they were simply decorations, ornate masks worn by this secret boudoir.
Baldo was led higher yet, toward the very rafters of the palace, where he first heard the screams of the other prisoners. Past an auditorium, built from wood beams, where a man was fastened to a block of stone by a set of ropes bolted to a pulley system above. Another shirtless man, his oppressor, yanked the ropes in time with muffled questions, drowned out by the cries of the poor mortal. What had this man done to deserve such torture? Had he killed his entire family? Surely not, for Baldo did not recognize him from any of the circulated radio images (of which he himself had become a fixture of lately). Baldo trembled as he was led past, imagining horrible tortures far worse than this that awaited him. And it was not by accident that he was privy to this particular chamber. Was every prisoner forced to take this Walk of Fear upon first arriving?
His walk culminated in Baldo’s first encounter with Luccio Xiomar, a thin rail of a man dressed in worn leather. Baldo was presented to him within a metal chamber, where an open transport pod stood waiting. Xiomar was positioned fiddling with the controls, observing the weather conditions beneath the city.
“You belong in this,” he said, his voice all phlegm and sputum. He presented the transport pod that would take Baldo directly to the core, shoot him through the atmosphere at who knew what kind of speeds. Xiomar laughed.
“But, for the time being, this planet sees fit that you stay right where you are. Do you know where you are?”
Baldo shook his head.
“You are arrived at the house of truth. My house.”
Xiomar wafted his hands at the guards who removed Baldo from the mechanical chamber and toward his waiting cell.
- - -
The House of Truth.
Baldo couldn’t get it out of his head. Even after he’d been led to the waist-high door, practically had to crawl on all fours to enter the putrid cavity he’d call home, scurried like a rodent away from the husky guards into a cloud of mites that took to his skin like magnetic filings, Xiomar’s edict rang through his head. As the terrible bugs began to feast on his sun-smoothed skin, Baldo’s mind cracked and a vision plagued him:
--Baldo stands in his children’s bedroom and calls out to them. At present, he cannot remember their names. They come nevertheless. He does not greet them with open arms but instead with the dagger he uses to carve landmarks and make a living. The youngest watches as blood pours from her brother. Baldo does not hesitate and spills her blood, also, onto the carpet. Dreadful silence. He moves into the bedroom and scoops out Masha’s throat with the same knife, still warm from the blood of their two beautiful children. The silence of their house fills his ears like a circus. Baldo begins the task of arranging them on their bed--
But then he swam back from the vision, gulped at lungfulls of the thick air around him as the door to his cell slammed home. Baldo knew the vision to be false, a lie perpetuated by the state. He did not know the reason, nor was he likely to find out, locked up here. So, the months crawled onward.
- - -
“Today. Is moving day.” Xiomar smiled, hunkered down, his face appearing in between the metal slats on Baldo’s cell door. “No trouble from you, right?”
By now, Baldo’s skin had crusted over from the mites, his left eye a constant state of infection and wormy puss; he could barely open it. He was kept in solitary confinement save for a bath once every other week. The summer months had passed and the thought of the shadowy corridors outside the palace (prison, torture chamber) did nothing to help his cloistered state of mind. Darkness was all he knew, for now.
The guards entered and helped Baldo stand, something he couldn’t do without having to cock his head to the side due to the low ceiling. As he did this, and Xiomar undid the latch to the door,
Baldo caught his first glimpse of the man he would come to know as Alessandro Garanova, skewed by the Dutch angle of his gaze.
They locked eyes for a moment as Baldo was led out. He could see this mysterious man’s glistening, perfect skin, his bright eyes. In comparison, he looked nothing like Baldo. Healthy, fresh-faced, even well-fed. Baldo squinted at him, the man nodded back, then was forced into the retched space Baldo had called home for the past ten months.
Baldo was led down a corridor of cells, past haggard men much like himself, some reduced to sobbing. At the end of the hall was a full-sized door that stood ajar. Men were moving ornate furniture into the hallway, carrying a gilded chair back the way he came. Xiomar personally ushered Baldo into his new cell, a full-sized room with a portion of one of the 38 stained glass windows visible through the interior wall. There was a massive armoire that stood against the far wall and looked immovable. A soft breeze lapped against Baldo’s scabbed-over cheek. A heavily barred transom window opposite was the source. There were no pestering swarms of mites to be seen.
“Consider yourself lucky,” Xiomar said. “You went from the worst to the best, just like that!”
There was even a mattress to sleep on. Baldo turned to meet Xiomar’s gaze with his one good eye, but the jailer had already exited. All Baldo got was a glimpse of his cell door closing, ever closing.
He moved to the transom and let the cool breeze wash over his face, feeling for the first time the thick shell of despair that had been his burden begin to slough away.
On a whim, Baldo opened the wooden armoire, half expecting to see another secret staircase, this one leading to freedom. Instead, he found the back to be a dark grain of wood, thick and lifeless to the touch.
- - -
End Part 2.