Read an Excerpt
By Michael Dante DiMartino
Roaring Brook PressCopyright © 2016 Michael Dante DiMartino
All rights reserved.
Giacomo cradled the chunk of charcoal in his hand and lightly pressed it to the paper. Faint lines circled the dirty page, darkening into the shape of his oval head. He added a shadow, carving out his round chin, then moved on to his thick eyebrows, followed by the nostrils of his bulbous nose. Before long, his face emerged. As he drew, Giacomo glanced up and down between the shard of mirror leaning against the wall and his sketchbook. He used quick strokes to build up his hair, which fell in ratty waves to his shoulders. With a fingertip, he rubbed more charcoal under his lower lip, on the side of his nose, and under his brows to give dimension to his features. Giacomo paused and examined his latest effort. He shook his head and sighed. Over the past few years, he'd filled sketchbook after sketchbook with self-portraits, but was never satisfied with the results. The boy who stared back at him from the pages always looked like a stranger.
For the finishing touch, he surrounded his portrait with black strokes, but he pushed down too hard and his last piece of charcoal shattered. Giacomo groaned and slammed his sketchbook shut. Time for a supply run.
Giacomo wiped his dust-covered hands on his tunic, which was so filthy he couldn't tell what was dirt, what was charcoal, and what was sewer muck. They all blended together into a brownish-green grime.
The light from his lantern flickered, creating dancing shadows on the curved stone wall. As he tucked his worn sketchbook into his burlap satchel, the flame vanished and his hideout plunged into darkness.
He slung the satchel over his shoulder and grabbed the lantern's thin handle. Reaching out, he touched the edge of the low archway, then ducked, careful not to bang his head.
In the main tunnel, rats skittered and squeaked. The stench of urine burned his nostrils. As his feet splashed through shallow water, Giacomo slid his hand across the protruding stones, using them as signposts to navigate through the cramped aqueducts.
He counted a hundred paces and turned left into another passageway. Two hundred more paces. A right. He felt a familiar mossy area — his signal to head to the surface.
Climbing a spiral staircase, he came to a narrow storm drain. Moonlight streamed through and his vision began to return. Giacomo crouched and peered out, the street at eye level. As he expected, the city looked empty. But any moment, a soldier might march by, patrolling for curfew breakers. Or worse, a Lost Soul could be lurking in the shadows, waiting to lunge at an unsuspecting victim.
Giacomo gazed up at the specks of light blanketing the heavens. On nights like this, he sensed the Creator's presence. But it was like a scent of lavender in the breeze — there for a moment, then gone.
The clomp of footsteps snapped him back to earth. As he'd feared, two soldiers headed his way, their hands on the hilts of their swords. He ducked down and waited for the men to pass. Once the rattling of their armor faded, he counted to fifty. Can't be too careful, he reminded himself.
Giacomo wriggled his skinny torso through the storm drain. Knowing the soldiers would loop back around in a while, he had to move fast. But for now, this area of Virenzia was his.
He inhaled a lungful of the cool, fresh air and darted down a backstreet. On either side of him, the looming houses were stacked so precariously high it looked like they could topple over and crush him.
Rounding the corner, he spotted his target — Beppe's Bakery. Above a faded red door hung a weathered sign, the image of a plump man with a bushy mustache carved into the wood. As Giacomo caught his breath, hunger kicked him in the gut.
He snuck around back, where he was met by a pair of locked shutters. He took a palette knife from his satchel and eased the blade between the two wooden panels, lifting the handle until he heard the clink of the latch coming unhooked. The shutters swung open with a slow groan. He hoisted himself through the window and pulled the shutters closed.
Prowling past fat sacks of flour, Giacomo vowed that one day he'd retire his palette knife from its life of crime and use it for what it was meant for — mixing oil paint.
Under the baker's rolling table he found a tin bucket full of burned, stale bread. When Giacomo was first living on the streets, he had discovered that Beppe the Baker had a morning ritual of strolling down to the river and feeding the previous day's discards to the ducks. Giacomo had decided if the bread was good enough for them, it was good enough for him.
He rummaged through the baker's scraps. Most were as hard and black as coal. He dug to the bottom, where he found a few squishy hunks. Giacomo stuffed one in his mouth and packed the rest in his satchel.
While the stale bread stewed in his saliva, he crept over to a vat of olive oil and dunked a ladle into it. He poured a cupful of the thick liquid into the base of his lantern, enough to give him light for a couple of nights. Next he reached into the brick oven and picked out a few pieces of charcoal.
Giacomo slipped out the way he had come in, offering Beppe his silent thanks. One day, he would pay back the baker for his unwitting kindness.
By the time his feet met the cobblestones, the bread in his mouth was soft enough to swallow. He scampered into the shadows and headed to his final stop.
He emerged from a side street and hid behind a column at the edge of the city's central square — Piazza Nerezza, named for the "Supreme Creator." He scowled. What wasn't named for her? Over the years, Supreme Creator Nerezza had slapped her name on every major street, building, and monument in Virenzia, as if people really needed reminding that they were living in her domain.
Technically, Nerezza was the emperor of the Zizzolan Empire, like her father before her. But years of absolute power had made her delusional and she renamed herself the Supreme Creator. Giacomo fumed at her arrogance. Who was she to put herself on a pedestal, above the true Creator of this world?
Giacomo dashed from pillar to pillar, keeping his eyes and ears out for more soldiers. A black marble obelisk towered in the center of the square. Shapes and symbols were carved into each of its four sides. Ten times as tall as Giacomo, it was capped with a pyramid that pointed to the heavens. He recalled his mother's soft voice describing how the Creator had placed the needle of his Compass on the spot where the monument now stood, and drew a circle, bringing the world into existence. His parents also told him stories about Zizzolan heroes who protected the weak from the powerful during a time long ago when artists and their Geniuses didn't have to hide. In the tales, the heroes' belief and trust in the Creator always got them through whatever challenges they faced, which probably explained why Nerezza had burned all the books containing the old myths. Even the memory of heroes past seemed to threaten her.
At the far end of the piazza was the Supreme Creator's palace. From its towers hung flags emblazoned with the Zizzolan Empire's symbol — a black triangle pointing down, inside of which was a white triangle pointing up. The pattern repeated itself, the shapes shrinking until there was only a white dot. Just seeing the symbol made Giacomo sick to his stomach.
The buildings next to the towers were draped with two monumental tapestries, each an identical depiction of the Supreme Creator. She stood tall and proud in her black robes, her mouth bent into a conceited smirk. Perched on the palace's triangular roof was a stone gargoyle of her Genius — a horrifying winged creature with a long tail, a beak full of fangs, and two twisted horns that sprouted from the center of the crown on its head. What a crime, Giacomo thought, that the only Genius allowed in the world is that monstrosity.
Giacomo turned away from the palace and approached a three-story building with boarded-up windows. He wedged himself between the chained double doors and shimmied through. Then he lit his lantern, casting a warm glow through the cavernous room, and walked past the broken tables and chairs, kicking up a plume of dust with each step. Long abandoned, the space once housed a cultural center and artists' studios. He liked to picture himself arriving for class as eager students ran up and down the halls.
Painted across one side of the main hall was a long fresco, cracked and faded. As he did every time he visited, Giacomo blew the dust off the bronze plaque embedded in the wall next to it.
GENIUSES OF ZIZZOLA
COMMISSIONED BY EMPEROR CALLISTO, IN HONOR OF OUR EMPIRE'S GREAT MEN, WOMEN, AND GENIUSES WHO BROUGHT BEAUTY TO LIGHT THROUGH THEIR ART, MUSIC, WRITING, THEATER, AND DANCE.
Engraved underneath was the artist's name:
A few years ago, when Giacomo first stumbled upon this room, it was like he'd discovered a cavern of hidden treasure. He found a stash of sketchbooks and drawing supplies in a locked cabinet, long forgotten. And the fresco had become his main source of inspiration. Each scene was a chance to study the human figure in different poses, wearing a variety of clothes, at all ages, from babies to hunched old couples. Had Pietro Vasari known these people? Did they all stand in this room and model for his mural? Although the artist had died — rumor was, at the Supreme Creator's hands — studying his painting was the next best thing to being a real artist's apprentice.
He found a familiar vignette, one that always brought comfort: a young girl, probably three or four, reaching for her Genius. The tiny creature's wings were spread as if it had just floated down from the sky to meet her. Nearby, her smiling mother and father held each other, grateful for the arrival of their daughter's Genius, which would become her muse and guardian.
Before Nerezza made it illegal for artists to have Geniuses, this kind of scene, while not common to all children, would've been celebrated. But now, if a Genius flew into a child's life, it meant a death sentence for both.
Giacomo took a few steps forward, studied the fresco up close, then began to draw the girl. After a few minutes, he paused, comparing his work to Pietro's. He rubbed his eyes, frustrated. How come his figures always looked stiff and awkward, while the ones in the painting looked like they could step right off the wall? Pietro captured lively gestures and natural expressions with only a few pigments and some wet plaster, and made it look easy.
Giacomo often wondered why the Supreme Creator had allowed this fresco to survive. After all, she'd wiped out Geniuses and stripped the city of any works of art that weren't her own. Did she secretly admire Pietro's work? Or maybe because her father commissioned the fresco, she didn't have the heart to paint over it? Yeah, right, Giacomo thought. Like the Supreme Creator has a heart.
Giacomo was putting the finishing touches on the Genius's feathers when he was startled by the rattle of a metal chain. He dropped his charcoal and whirled around, expecting a soldier to step from the shadows. No one came.
Unnerved, Giacomo packed his materials, picked up his lantern, and made for the doors.
But the way out was blocked.
Standing in front of him was the silhouette of a hunched figure. Unmoving.
He stopped breathing and stepped back.
The silhouette lurched closer, feet dragging. It was a woman. Gray matted hair hung in wild strands, covering most of her face.
A Lost Soul.
Giacomo tried to run, but he was frozen in terror.
A thin hand, more bone than flesh, rose out of the woman's cloak and pointed at Giacomo. She crept closer, into the lantern's light. Still, he couldn't move.
Her eyes stared not so much at him, as through him. Her hollow gaze looked exactly like his mother's and father's in the weeks after their Geniuses had been taken away. He was five at the time, and their haunting expressions had been seared into his memory.
The Lost Soul's mouth opened and let out a long groan that eventually formed a word.
Trembling, Giacomo held out some bread to the woman. "Here. Take it."
The woman snatched it from his hand and pointed to his lantern. "Fire ..."
"No, I need it."
"Fire!" she shrieked, her whole body vibrating.
Giacomo wasn't about to give up his only source of light. Finally, sensation returned to his legs. Confident he could outrun the Lost Soul, he made a break for it.
He arced around the woman, but she lunged and her sharp fingernails grazed his shoulder. He pulled on the door and stuffed his head and torso through the opening. The splintered wood scraped his back. To his horror, another Lost Soul waited for him outside — a man with black greasy hair pasted against his hollow cheeks. He snarled. The few teeth he had were yellow and crooked, jutting like shards of glass from his gums.
Before Giacomo knew what was happening, the man made a grab for his lantern.
"Let go!" Giacomo yelled. Despite his bony arms, the man was strong. He yanked the lantern, dragging Giacomo the rest of the way through the doors. They stumbled into the piazza, continuing their tugof-war. Giacomo threw his weight back and pulled with all his strength, wrenching the lantern from the man's grip.
But before Giacomo could run, he felt the woman's spindly arms wrap around his neck, choking him.
As Giacomo struggled to free himself, he saw the man reach into his tattered coat and pull out a rusty blade. He rushed forward, jabbing with the knife. An icy pain stabbed into Giacomo's left side, right below his ribs. The lantern dropped from his hand and clattered onto the ground.
The woman released her hold and Giacomo collapsed to his knees, clutching his side. The world began to spin.
The Lost Souls made off with the rest of the bread from his satchel and his lantern. By the time his head hit the ground, they were gone.
As blood oozed through Giacomo's fingers, he thought, At least they didn't take my sketchbook.CHAPTER 2
The past few days were a blur. There had been a fight, Zanobius vaguely recalled. But the memory of what had happened was gone.
This wasn't the first time he'd awakened in a new place with few clues to how he'd gotten there or what time of day it was. He felt like a rowboat caught in a squall, tossed up and down as he fought to find the shore. He'd come to dread the blackouts.
A dark gray cloak covered his arms and legs and a hood hung low over his eyes. "A precaution," he faintly remembered his master telling him. "It's better if they don't know who you are." But whether that conversation happened a few minutes ago or a few hours ago, he couldn't be sure.
Wool fibers scratched his neck, his back, his arms. He wanted to tear off the cloak and let his skin breathe. Who cared if people saw what he was? Was his master ashamed of him?
He was standing outside a thick wooden door. Torches stuck out of the packed-dirt walls, lighting the narrow passageway. Beams lined the ceiling for support. Between the torches hung painting after painting. The beautiful, colorful works seemed out of place in a dank tunnel that threatened to crumble any moment.
The muffled yells of two men came through the door. One of the voices belonged to his master. He shouted something about sacred tools.
The Creator's Sacred Tools.
Of course. His master, Ugalino, had been searching across the Zizzolan Empire for the Compass, Straightedge, and Pencil, but for what purpose, Zanobius couldn't be sure. Maybe Ugalino had never told him. But he did know why they had come here — to meet a black market art dealer who had information about the Tools' whereabouts.
The door swung open and a squat-nosed guard with scruffy hair stepped out. Zanobius sized him up: he was equally as tall as Zanobius, broad through the shoulders, and his muscles pulled his tunic taut. A rapier hung from his belt, its point nearly touching the ground. A poor choice of sword for close-quarters combat. The art dealer's guard was hardly a threat.
Through the open door, Zanobius glimpsed his master's wavy black hair and short beard. A white cloak draped over his wide shoulders and he gripped an ivory staff in his right hand. He faced a man with long black hair and an unkempt beard who leaned back in a chair with his feet stacked on a thick oak table. Crowds of statues, stacks of paintings, countless colorful vases, and roll upon roll of tapestries filled the room.
"Your employer doesn't know when to shut up." The guard pulled the door shut.
"He's my master," Zanobius corrected.
The guard leaned against the wall. "Well, yourmaster started going on about a compass and some kind of pencil, then had the nerve to tell me to leave so he could talk to my employer alone. Like that's going to get him anywhere." The man spat on the ground. "We get collectors like him down here from time to time. Thinks he's doing Rocco a big favor by taking some art off his hands. But just because the high-and-mighty Supreme Creator has her art hounds sniffing around for contraband doesn't mean Rocco's gonna roll over and give his paintings away for a song."
Excerpted from Rebel Genius by Michael Dante DiMartino. Copyright © 2016 Michael Dante DiMartino. Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
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