It was 4 a.m. I laid half-awake in my bed at the hotel. It was always like this before any exhibition. I barely get any sleep and then push through the day on enormous amounts of coffee or alcohol, depending on the type of reception - be it early in the morning or later in the evening. As I went to grab a glass of water I meticulously examined all of my canvases. It’s not that often when I get invited to present my unusual work at the prestigious Galleria Dell Accademia and I wanted to make sure that the selection of my art is perfect.
After at least a dozen more failed attempts to get some sleep I decided to finally get out of bed and do something productive. The weather outside was gloomy and I’ve already saw most of Florence, so a stroll outside didn’t sound that enticing. I arrived three days before the exhibition to meet other artists who will be presenting and got a chance to explore this gorgeous city.
As I was taking a shower I got an unusual burst of creativity. The idea was very alive in my head and I hurried through my usual morning routine to get started. I cleaned my brushes, prepared a test tube of blood, dissolved it in water and set my pallette.
I don’t have a certain methodology when it comes to painting but the one thing that always happens is that I lose track of time.
By the time the canvas was fully drenched in someone else’s blood it was way past five. I never immediately liked any of my works but this one - I fell in love with. I grabbed my camera, set the lights and took a decent enough picture to send to my main client. We’ve never met before. We only spoke from time to time, mostly about my work. The only thing I knew about her was her last name, which was written on each successful bank transaction - Di Tenebre. She found about my odd paintings through my website a few years ago and since then has been my biggest supporter and follower. I knew she would love this one so I sent the picture as soon as possible.
As I was preparing my suit the phone in my room rang.
“I’m very sorry to disturb you Signore Hostillo, but your cab is going to arrive in a quarter of an hour.”
“I’ll make sure to be in the lobby on time. Grazia.”
I grabbed my paintings while fixing my long black tie and headed to the elevator. Even with a high collar and a long sleeved shirt I couldn’t seem to hide all of my tattoos.
It was a humid summer afternoon. I was waiting outside of the hotel and already regretted the thick suit I decided to wear. The sun was setting and the beauty of Florence was at its peak. The cab driver arrived shortly and we went to the infamous Galleria. I paid in cash, said my thanks and hurried to the building. It appeared way bigger from the inside. There was staff everywhere, each one shuffling to their tasks dutifully. There was a heavy scent of wine and blueberries. As I was passing by Michellangelo’s most famous works I reminded myself to buy similar scented candles.
Soon enough I found an empty white wall with a small sign, which said “Lucian Hostillo”. I quickly established the canvases on the wall. The dried-red blood was in high contrast with the pale walls. My works of art felt even more alive. I adjusted the lighting, brushed off the non-existent dust on the dark-gold frames and was ready for the most important evening in my life. Or at least I felt I was.
The guests arrived one by one and each felt more important than the previous one. They were greeted with a glass of Don and welcomed to the main hall. I stood at the far end near Michelangelo’s “Prisoners” and had a wonderful view of the hall and all of the arriving guests. Among them were men and women of the highest class. They were dressed in the latest fashion and most of them had escorts, who were twice as big as the normal man.
Everyone had precisely one hour to look around the work of all the artists before the bidding. I was standing by my works of art and received a number of compliments. In one of the smaller groups of people that came by I noticed a tall, pale woman, dressed in a pitch black gown and wearing a wide brim, crimson hat.
Her grey eyes wandered around the paintings and eventually fell onto mine. As chills crippled through my spine she gave me a courteous bow and a lethal smile. I was tangled in her shadowy presence. I gathered my thoughts and tried to talk to her but she was already moving on to the next artist.
The bidding started shortly. I stayed through a big part of the chaos but the lack of sleep, the numerous glasses of wine and the stress from the event took their toll. I felt exsanguinated. As I was walking away from the bidding hall I heard that my name was announced and the auction started. I couldn’t bear the pressure so I ran outside in hopes that some fresh air would cure my condition. The sun was long gone and darkness shrouded the streets. The air was as humid as before but wasn’t that heavy. I walked by the steps nearby and sat for a while to enjoy the light breeze.
“Are you alright, Signore?” , a feminine voice said.
“Y-yes, thank you, Signora.” , I murmured as I tried to get on my feet.
“Are you sure? I found you lying here on the steps and was concerned. Should I call an ambulance?”
As I was getting myself together I noticed the crimson brim hat. I felt the urge to vomit.
“That wouldn’t be needed, Signora. It’s probably the champagne. I should’ve known better to not drink that much.”, I said and rubbed the back of my head as if to cover that horrible lie.
“Do you live nearby? Should I ask my driver to drop you off?” , she said as she was pulling her phone from her leather purse.
“Very kind of you, Signora but my hotel is close and I also need to go back inside.”, I said and wondered how long did the blackout last.
“I’m afraid the auction is over, Signore. Everyone is preparing to leave now. I didn’t want to get caught up in the hustle so I left a bit early.” , she said as we were slowly heading back to the Galleria.
“Over you say?” , I said astonished as I was brushing off the dirt from my suit. “Yes, Signore. Are you sure you don’t need a lift? My driver would be here shortly.”, she said and fixed her hat.
The moonlight made her skin to appear even more pale. I felt it almost shined. She was even more beautiful.
“I would rather walk for a while. Florence is even more beautiful at night. Would you like to join me?”, I said with pretended confidence and held out my hand. “Lucian.”
“Lilith.”, her grey eyes glistened. “It would be a pleasure, Lucian”, she said then called her driver and told him to wait.
It turned out she had never visited Florence and was leaving tomorrow so I decided to give her a short tour of the city before the sun would rise again. We walked by San Lorenzo’s Market. “I love this place. It’s so serene.”, Lilith said. “You would hate it through the day then. It’s anything but serene. ”What’s it like?”, she said as she gripped my hand. “It’s filled with merchants and tourists and everyone is in a hurry.”, I said as we walked through the empty market. She giggled and put her hand through mine. It’s an extremely busy location through the day. Now? Well now it seemed like a cemetery. As if someone had eviscerated the liveliness out of this place and replaced it with misery. Only a few dim lights flickered and not a single soul could be seen.
We passed by The Duomo di Florence and talked about life. Apparently she is a writer, she lives in a small town in Norway and flew all day specifically for the private exhibition. I felt more and more enamoured as we talked. She was impressed with its vastness. We then walked to Santa Croce’s Church. She wasn’t that impressed. I felt drained and Lilith lost her footing a couple of times around the church. She blamed the champagne but I knew she was tired too. So I decided to end the tour with one last destination. The Piazzalle Michelangelo. It wasn’t far but the path was uphill so we both agreed to take a cab.
“Well, this is it. How’s the view?”, I said and sat on the ground. The whole city was beneath us and the Duomo loomed over the cityscape. “This… this is surreal. I can’t find the right words to describe it. And that, dear Lucian, is quite uncommon.”, she laughed and sat next to me. We basked in the beauty of Florence, which, shrouded by the night is a scene worth killing for.
Moments ago we were strangers and now I hardly manage to imagine my mornings without her soft and delicate presence. Hours felt like seconds. I would sell my soul to the Devil if he would be able to freeze time for just a while. We laid together, tangled in shadows as dawn approached.
Lilith suddenly looked at me as if she woke up from a nightmare. “I need to go Lucian. Now.” For a girl who was half-asleep she jumped and got dressed with the speed of light. “Just give me a second. I’ll walk you back to the city”, I said as I tried to find my shoes but when I looked back she was already calling her driver. “Lilith, wait, let me get a cab. We can have a coffee. I know a great place downtown. You’ll love it!”, I said. I tried to grab her hand but she brushed it away. “No.” I ran in front of her and tried to stop her from leaving and saw that her eyes were bleeding. “NO! JUST GET BACK AND LEAVE ME ALONE!”, she yelled and I saw two huge white fangs. I took a few steps back and fell on the ground. She hissed as she was running to the black Benz.
I got back to my hotel, took a shower and fell asleep. I woke up 16 hours later. There were a couple of letters and a newspaper beneath my door. I opened the first one. It was from the hotel, which reminded me I have a flight to catch tomorrow. The second one was from L. Di Tenebre. Inside was a formal invitation and a plane ticket to Norway. The invitation mentioned the fact that if I was to accept I would have to “drastically change”. I grabbed the newspaper and then saw the first page. There with huge letters was written: “Lucian Di Hostillo is the 4th most successful artists in history, after a mysterious woman buys all of his paintings in a private auction”
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This was Stanislav Totkov’s graduation short story, published here exactly as submitted.