Revenge. It is one of our oldest imperatives. An easy concept to concentrate on. And it provided a distraction for my little-used mind. But plotting revenge makes one acknowledge one’s current limitations.
I had no resources: no money, no training, no real understanding of the world beyond the cloistered halls of a Charterhouse; I had no help. On the plus side I was in no hurry. Therefore I made a plan. Money would do me no good until I had the ability to fulfill my obligation to avenge of my family’s murder. Thus my first order of business must be to accumulate knowledge. I needed first to understand what was transpiring in Firenze. Next I needed to figure out some way to gain the skills I would need to murder Medicis.
I had grown up if not out while living with Donata. I was now tall and lean. My face was pleasing, so no one immediately suspected me of being a brigand. I was known in Fiesole and I had a reputation as a serious if not very bright lad. This was useful to me. Men of property or those with standing tended to dismiss me, or at least ignore me. I was just a peasant, of no consequence, and especially no threat. To them, I was just one of the many creatures who served them, and thus invisible.
In the evenings when their work was done the men of Fiesole gathered at the local inn to gossip over wine. I began to go there too. I could listen in as they spoke of what was happening and be certain no one would pay me any mind. Thus I began to piece together the situation as it was back home in Firenze.
After a few months of such quiet unobtrusive spying, I began to ask a careful question or two. I was judicious regarding what I asked and to whom I directed my questions. I did not want the general populace to think I was intelligent. Drunkards were the easiest and safest to ask. Generally speaking their answers were pure bluster but invariably someone who actually did know more would chime in and correct the false and silly comments and thusly my knowledge grew.
This was the state of affairs when a rather frightening man began to appear regularly amongst the tavern crowd. I ceased asking questions, terrified he’d been sent to seek me out and murder me. He had an air about him. He was no farmer. No merchant. His boots marked him as a mercenary or discharged soldier or armsman. He made no attempt to hide his difference. He just generally drank by himself until he appeared bleary-eyed and morose.
As he was there every night and had shown not the least bit of interest in me, I stopped worrying about him…until the night he caught the hem of my tunic and pulled me down to sit beside him on a bench. He appeared to be drunker than normal so I was not all that concerned. There were many others in the tavern; so long as I did not let him take me elsewhere I felt I was in no physical danger. But … ah, but. I would have to watch what I said.
The man who’d pulled me down to sit beside him eyed me balefully. I hunched my shoulders and refused to meet his eyes. I did my best to appear afraid and docile. I did not have to pretend very hard. There was something about him: a tension belied by the ease with which he leant against the wall. Droopy eyelids barely hid a spark of intelligence beyond that belonging to a drunk. Not to mention he wore a serious looking and scarred sword on his hip.
As I kept my eyes down and safe from his, I studied his clothing. He wore bits and pieces of an armsman’s uniform. And he wore what looked to have once been a surcoat in some house’s colours. The colours had faded under sun and rain and washing. But despite its obvious age, the surcoat was very clean. And the sword. I didn’t know much about swords, granted, but it looked like an efficient sword. It certainly had seen more than its fair share of use.
I’d become more and more alarmed as I’d studied his garb and when I’d adjudged he’d lost interest in me (his head was cocked to listen to an argument at another table) I started to get up intending to slip away. But before I could move enough to get free he caught my arm in an iron grip. “Sit back down,” he ordered. I sat.
So we remained for what felt like an eternity, he sitting there, to all eyes casually. I fighting to calm myself. My heart was pounding so loudly I couldn’t hear any of the conversations around me. He himself was silent, apparently his interest piqued by that argument several tables away. I remained as I was, my mind leaping in all directions to find an escape.
He poured me a glass of wine. I was afraid to drink it.
After that eternity, when the men on the nearer benches got up to leave for the night, off to their warm safe beds and the loving arms of their wives, he finally turned to look more fully at me. “I know who you are,” he said.
My heart stopped. It took all the courage I had to sit still as stone right there and not to attempt an escape.
He reached over and lifted my chin to force me to meet his eyes. “You are safe from me, little one. I hate the Medicis as much as you do. They killed my duke. Thus I wish to help you.”
I was trembling inside but was relieved to hear that my voice, when it came, was steady. “You are mistaken in me, sir. I am no one. Merely Donata Cabria’s nephew Carmine. I…”
He just looked at me and my voice died away.
“Meet me behind the inn after it closes. By the stables.” He stood then, shoved me sideways as if too drunk to stay upright without caroming off of me and made a stumbling exit from the tavern. But he’d pushed into my hands a piece of cloth. I dare not look at it here. I executed a hasty exit from the tavern and made my way home.
When I reached the safety and privacy of Donata’s hut, in the light provided by the fire, I pulled the piece of cloth out of my pocket. On it was inscribed the crest of one of the major Houses of Venezia- a city you know as Venice. I knew this crest as I’d once been home when visitors from Venezia had arrived.
So, he was either a spy for this House, or perhaps a Guild member himself. He spoke well. He’d been educated; far more so than any armsman I’d ever heard of. He could, I also realized, have been sent by the Medicis to kill me. They’d sent their armsmen once to look for me. Perhaps again.
Still, I felt I had to go to that meeting. If he’d come merely to kill me, he could easily have done so any number of times by merely following me home and attacking me on the road. And I wanted very much to know what else he wanted to tell me.
Donata was awake and saw me staring at the bit of cloth. I explained to her the situation and what I had decided to do. After all, her life would be forfeit if I erred in trusting this man.
She listened, then begged me not to meet him. She had good arguments as to why it was too dangerous, foolish, and would lead to nothing but misery. I was happy here, wasn’t I, she asked. She even shed tears. She’d come to love me, she explained. She wanted me to be safe.
Still, I would go. But I did promise her I would be as careful as I knew how to be.
I made my way to the meeting more than an hour before the tavern would close. I hid in the barn loft (and enjoyed the sounds of one of the tavern girls having sex with one of the customers) and waited. I listened to the grooms talk below me. They gossiped about local girls and then spoke of how the Guilds were warring with the current government over the Ordinances of Justice which kept any member of a Florentine Guild from serving in a public office. The merchant princes wanted the city back.
The noises below me gradually died down. The grooms left for their beds once the last of the horses needed that night was gone. Then it was only me in the loft. I listened carefully but heard only the shifting of the horses and mules in their stalls, and the scurrying of rats as they ran merrily through the straw, a kitten playfully stalking them. I could hear the wind sounding eerily sad as it found a chink through which to wail. I crept out of my hiding place as silently as I could and swarmed down the ladder to drop with hardly a sound into a pile of hay. A hand reached out and grabbed me by the neck.
He had a strength I could not fight against, and I swear his eyes, for just a moment, glowed red. I nearly crossed myself but knew instinctively he’d only have contempt for that. Instead I drew myself up and looked back at him defiantly (once he’d let go of my neck).
He put his hands on his hips and grinned. His teeth showed brilliant white in the dim light in the stable. “You’re growing up tall, Cristoforo, but you look too much like your father. Hmm. Stop shaving that stubble. Let it grow. It softens your jawline. Anyone with sense can see that bloodline in you even underneath that dirt.” He reached out and used a finger to wipe dirt off my cheek.
I’d have run when he said my true name, but he was between me and any hope of freedom and I had no illusions I would be fast enough to get past him. He had a hunting cat’s grace, and his grip had been tremendously strong.
I held my head up and hissed, “What do you want of me?”
He grinned again. “Not a damn thing. But I think there are a few things you’d like from me.” He reached out and softly traced my jawline, this time ignoring the dirt. I stood frozen where I was. All right, I trembled at his touch.
“I would not take you without your leave, young fellow. I am not the man to fear.”
“Are you not?” I asked softly. “You know who I am. You could earn many florins by telling the Medicis.”
He snickered. “Think very highly of yourself, don’t you.”
My eyes narrowed. “They sent an assassin to the Charterhouse. They came to Fiesole seeking me.”
He backed up and half sat on a bale of hay and studied me a moment. He was still too close, and his sword hand lay lightly on the handle of that far too serious looking sword. Again I did not dare to try to escape past him.
“Yes, true,” he said with a frown. “I’m rather baffled as to why they are worried about you. You don’t look like much. Scrawny still. Tall and comely, granted, but that is hardly a threat to the Medicis. You have nothing. You are nothing more than a mere vegetable farmer. No money, no weapons training, I’ll wager. So why do they care about you?”
“I’ve no idea,” I replied with what dignity I could muster.
He grinned again. “I’ll have to guess it is your mind, since that body is very sweet and tempting but not likely to cause much injury in a melee.”
To my shame I blushed.
“Down to business,” he said, as he cleared his throat. “I offer you a chance at revenge, young Abrizzi. I will help you, train you, and then you can help me.”
“And be your lover?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Only if you desire to be. I’ve little trouble finding lovers, boy.”
That I could easily believe. There was an air about him. And although I did not approve of what he spoke of, even so I found myself sexually excited by him. Perhaps it was merely because he seemed interested in me in that way. I was still a virgin. He represented a mystery I did not know.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“You may call me Darius. But only in private. Use no name for me in public.”
I nodded. “Then I am Carmine. I have left my own name behind me.”
“Why?” he asked. “Shall you not reclaim it when you are safe from the Medicis?”
“No. An Angel came to me. From the Devil. I am cursed. I am no longer of God.”
“Ah. I understand being cursed,” he replied softly. Only later would I fully appreciate that comment.
“Do you know the clearing up past the falls? The one toward the cliff edge? Where the road to Firenze begins its sharpest descent?”
“Si, I do.”
“Meet me there tomorrow night an hour after full dark.” With that he was gone. One moment he stood there, the next he was gone, without even the sound of a footfall to mark his going.
I could not sleep when I finally lay on my pallet. I tossed and turned and thought about his offer. I thought about his body, to my shame.
Here was my first opportunity. An offer of assistance I could scarcely afford to turn down. He was right. I did need training. I needed money and I bet he had it. I needed seasoning. I needed a friend.
But there was the scent of the predator about him, and I was a small rabbit easily caught. Still. What choice did I have? I could easily choose not to meet him but then what? Spend three more years here before another opportunity arose? I was 15 now. Old enough to avenge my family.
So the next night, a bit after full dark, I was at the clearing as he’d described it. He, Darius, was not there. I paced, and began to wonder if I’d dreamt him. I sat at the foot of a tree and stared at my feet, feeling a fine fool. Finally I got up and went home. Ai. Why hadn’t he been there?
I was lying on my pallet by the fire, staring into the embers, wondering what I should do. Should I look for him? Or should I be happy I was safe. Perhaps I ought to accept this lot in life and remain here with Donata, maybe find a wife amongst the local girls. Have a family. Forget.
That was when I heard a soft scratching at the door. Donata was asleep up in the loft. I could hear her steady snores. I crept to the door, almost afraid to open it. Still… I did.
He stood there, looking… wild. Beautiful. Glowing. Handsome beyond words, his dark eyes full of life, a smile that would melt any woman’s heart. He motioned for me to come outside. I hurriedly wrapped up against the cool of the night as best I could with my limited wardrobe and slipped out the door. I could just make him out. He’d retreated to stand amidst the poplars that lined the road across from Donata’s tiny cottage. I walked over to where he awaited me.
Something was different about him. He was more vibrant than I’d ever seen him, his eyes were fire. I approached him cautiously. He met my eyes, and the next thing I knew his arms were around me and our lips were together. I did not pull back. In fact I kissed him too.
We did not have sex that night. Instead we got down to the business of arranging a series of meetings at the clearing. Once that was done he left me there, standing on the road beside Donata’s hut. I strained to see him as he made his way down the road, but somehow or another he disappeared from my sight almost immediately.
In that clearing over the next six months he taught me about weapons. He showed me how to hold a knife, how to hide one on my person, how to reach for it swiftly. He taught me about swords. Showed me how to move, taught me how to watch an opponent and how to look for telegraphed moves. How to out-think my opponents, how to confuse them by doing the unexpected. We sparred, we practiced, we laughed. In every possible style of fighting he always easily beat me, but I always learned something and he made sure I understood that lesson and could use it against others before he moved on to my next humiliation.
He only laughed when I complained that I was not any good. He said he had an edge that I could never overcome. Yes, that was evident. He could move so swiftly he was no more than a blur to me. One moment he might be standing opposite me, the next he could have a knife or a sword ready to gut me. This seemed odd, but somehow right.
I got better at weaponry, but never came close to being as good a fighter, or as fast on my feet as he was. Although my mind, at last given something to work at, did come up with a few moves and ideas that Darius praised.
On the nights we did not do physical training, we met at a mostly ruined cottage in the woods. That was where he lived. He had books! I drooled over them. I had not had a book to read for years now. The books he had were not the ones I’d had access to at home or at the Charterhouse. Instead they were history books, books on weapons, books on philosophy not from the standpoint of the Church. Such wealth he had tied up in such manuscripts! I would read them lovingly, and he would sit there and watch me, or ask me to read aloud to him.
At first I was very self-conscious with regard to this, but soon I would be lost in the book. When I asked him why he enjoyed watching me read he said he enjoyed my naiveté. I blushed at that. I was very untaught. In so many ways. In everything about the world, really.
Many nights we just talked. We sat on the rug before the fire, shoulders brushing, and he told me of places I’d never even heard of. Of wars and loves and oh so many things, some of which seemed impossible but yet sounded so wonderful I did not care.
Then one night he kissed me again. I wanted him as I’d never wanted anything.
That was the night I learned about sex. I did not know it at the time, of course, since I’d never experienced it with anyone else, but he was a gentle and skilled lover. And I felt glorious afterwards.
Thereafter we made love several times a week. He taught me how to pleasure a lover, saying that much of it was the same with women. Find the spots on their body that makes them moan. That it wasn’t all about a rush of need, but instead a willingness to give at least as much as you receive.
Thusly we spent a year. A wonderful year wherein I opened up like a flower to bask in Darius’ light.