Anything will give up its secrets if you love it enough. -
George Washington Carver
Behead one lousy consort and your reputation is assured.
To this day I do not know how I survived the attack. But however I managed it, it had been Ruffina’s head that sprayed blood and merrily bounced down this narrow, rutted stairway over 300 years ago.
I reach out and touch the living stones, yet again asking them for answers. Perhaps I ought to bring Adele Blakesley here. She has an affinity to the stones. To Italy. There is Italian blood in her veins. I know this since I tasted her sweet blood the night I nearly slit her throat.
I am wretchedly gloomy tonight, aren’t I? The moon dances on the Arno, the soft breeze brings me the scent of lemon and jasmine, along with the musty smell of dead loves, and rotted dreams, and I sit here reliving a painful past. Retelling history, to you who have no reason to care.
I hear the sounds of the Court. There is an orchestra playing on the upper terrace. I am already missed. I hear Nicco’s footsteps; he always knows where to find me.
“My Prince, there you are. Why are you sitting on the dirty stones of this unused stairway! Come.” The eternal child smiles into my eyes.
I smile back and take his hand. I let him lead me downwards, not looking back at the ghosts I know share this villa with me. I only wish they would rest in peace rather than haunt my dreams.
You didn’t know vampires had dreams, did you? I do. I relive every mistake, every eventful death and every lonely moment of my too long life. Gloom. Ai.
Nicco does not seem to notice my mood. No, more likely he notes it quite well, but is intent on cheering me. Determined to distract me from the waste of grief and regret which, after all, can change nothing.
How have I gotten here?
I follow Nicco, who is pulling me faster now that we’ve reached the wide marble hallways of the public sections of Villa di Medici. I nod at the few people who see me and try to look my usual aloof self. Rather hard with Nicco tugging me in a most unprincely fashion.
“Boy,” I say. “Dignity.”
Nicco mutters “pfft,” but he does slow down. Then he turns to meet my eyes. His are worried. He knows me too well. He graciously allows me a regal entrance onto the terrace, where the Court is celebrating …something or other. All eyes turn to me. They look for approval, love, gratitude. But there is envy and fear and perhaps well hidden hatred in their eyes too.
I take my seat, dip my head to the orchestra, and they start up again. Slowly couples begin to dance on the flagged patio. It looks romantic in the moonlight, lights strewn in the lemon trees and hidden behind the terracotta pots to cast shadows that flit and tease with the breeze.
How have I gotten here?
I am tired. Weary and worn. Lonely. And trapped.
I was 12 when my world fell apart. A man in those days. The turn of the century. The year of our Lord 1301. I was a novitiate at the Carthusian charterhouse La Certosa Di Montebenedetto.
My mother had promised me to God. I was her last child. Given to her in the twilight of her years, really. She was too old, most said, to bear yet a child. But bear me she did. She named me Cristoforo. It means ‘one who carries God’. The irony.
The Charterhouse had only been begun in the 13th century. It was small and simple, built in a sheltered hollow in the Viollafocchiardo mountains. The Carthusian order had been founded by Saint Bruno in France and had only recently expanded to Italy. Why my parents chose it over other orders is unknown to me.
The Carthusian ideal was of a desert or withdrawn place where one could live in solitude, in prayer and meditation. We were isolated in our mountainous aerie, that was certainly true.
I did not resent being sent off to God. I loved my life. And this particular Order suited me. I was an introspective, quiet child, and a contented young man. I wanted nothing more than to be a white monk all of my days. It was a quiet, contemplative life; we worked too, but not excessively. The rules were strict, there was no boyish play. But still I loved it. I felt fulfilled and filled with God.
All of that ended the night the man suddenly appeared in my cell and placed a sword against my neck.
I awoke and opened my eyes to gaze up into his silvery blue orbs. He stood in a shaft of moonlight that silvered the curve of his jaw and made his golden curls glow as if they were lit by an inner fire. A slight movement, perhaps only his breathing, caused the blade of his sword to pulse eerily. Perhaps that is why I thought him an Angel sent by God.
He was beautiful enough to be an angel. I’d never seen a man so beautiful. I cried tears of joy to be blessed with such a vision.
He hesitated and then eased up on the pressure on my neck.
He misunderstood. He thought I was afraid. I wanted to shout and tell him that no I was joyful. I was overwhelmed that he’d come to take me to Heaven. To be able to sacrifice myself to God! What more could a monk aspire to?
With the barest flick of his wrist the sword moved away from my neck; and given that additional freedom of movement I quickly scrambled up and then fell to my knees before him. I grasped the blade of his sword, which had been hanging limply at his side. Hot blood came from the cuts in my hands from that beautifully honed blade. Then I brought it again to my neck. I closed my eyes, flung my arms wide, and prayed.
After what seemed an eternity I opened my eyes, disappointed I had not yet reached Heaven. I was still kneeling on the cold hard stone in my bare cell. He hadn’t moved. I met his eyes.
He cursed. I was shocked that an Angel would say such a thing.
He reached down and grabbed my arm roughly, dragging me to my feet. I was too shocked to resist and was hardly strong enough to have done so anyway. I was small for 12, thin and not in the least bit used to heavy work.
The next thing I knew the two of us were standing in a narrow, dark, smelly alleyway. I did not recognize it. I did not believe it was Heaven.
“Go. Hide. Your family is dead.” His voice was gruff, as if he had difficulty speaking at all. At my confused look he added, “You are marked for death. If they know you yet live they will send someone else to kill you. Go. Hide.” The last was hissed at me.
With that he disappeared. One moment he was there, a blink of my eyes and he was suddenly gone. Not a sound marked his going. Only the slightest movement of air, as if it was rushing in to fill the void where he’d once been, reassuring me I had not dreamt him.
I looked around. The alleyway had only one exit. The houses here were facing another major street. Only one or two doors opened onto this narrow bit of pavement and they were closed and dark. In fact moonlight was the only light I had to see by, and not much of it penetrated the narrow way.
I stood there for some time, undecided what to do. Confused. Miserable. Bereft. Afraid. Why hadn’t he taken me to Heaven?
I looked down at myself. I was no longer wearing the robes of a dedicate. I wore normal street clothes of the time. Good solid shoes. I cried harder, the tears staining my cheeks. I sank to the stones and sat there wondering why the Angel had rejected me. Rejected me from Heaven and from His service and abandoned me here in some strange place. Some strange, common, horrible place.
I heard sounds then. Voices. Speech I recognized. Firenze. He’d left me in Firenze.
There were screams. The sounds of swords clashing. Armsmen yelling. No one came into my alleyway though.
Firenze, Florence as most know it, had always been a city roiled by violence. It was a regular thing. Battles for control of the city had been going on for centuries, the balance of power shifting almost daily. Hourly. My father would be in the midst of the violence. He was a merchant prince. My family was one of the most ancient, most revered, most powerful families in Florence. We were also one of the most deadly. My father generally gave no quarter. Thus you see why I was happy to be out of the politics and in the arms of Mother Church.
It began to sink slowly into my numb brain that the Angel had said my family was dead. Surely not. So powerful a family had trusted retainers, a private army for security. Unless Angels had come to kill them for breaking the commandments, no one would be able to kill ALL of them. Unless… Perhaps my Angel, or a host of Angels with him, had? Was that why I’d been rejected, my blood tainted. Was I to be forced to suffer for the sins of my father?
Screaming - screams of a painful death perhaps- finally brought me to my senses. I got to my feet and crept from shadow to shadow down the alleyway. At last I had a vantage point from which I could observe what was happening. My view was of a familiar square. I was not far from the family home.
I listened, but the sounds of fighting and the shouting of armsmen had faded. The noises of battle was getting fainter as if they were moving away from where I hid. Only the sounds of the dying – people dying in agony – remained.
I took one last look around. No one moved on the street other than the dying. I determined it was relatively safe to move. I exited the alleyway and stumbled down the street, my eyes wide, my mind numb with terror. The evidence of violence, looting, and celebrating decorated the cobblestones of the street. Dead men lay in pools of blood, the few men yet alive, were still crying in agony. A woman sobbed. A child’s gasps for breath wrenched at my heart. An overturned cart. A gory sword. A fire burning cheerfully consuming what was left of a person; I could not tell if it were male or female. I crossed myself and said a quick prayer for the dead and the dying. I should help… But I had nothing, not even something to use to bring them water from the well.
‘My family!’ I thought. My steps quickened almost to a run as I made my way toward our villa.
I skidded to an abrupt halt when I turned a corner and saw my family’s house. The main doors stood wide open. Dead men littered the entry. Armsmen guarded that entry to my house but I did not recognize the crest on their gambesons; they were not my father’s men. I was no expert on crests, but I did know the major ones; this had to be a minor house. My brothers would have recognized it, I was sure. They cared about such things; I never had.
A minor house and they’d taken control of my family’s property… I was shocked by that. I did not know enough about the world to wonder if we’d been betrayed. It didn’t matter anyway, because I knew then my Angel had spoken truth to me. My father would fight to the death before he allowed such men entry. My mother, too, would have wielded a knife and fought viciously to protect herself and her family.
I shuddered. I wanted to rush forward but my feet betrayed me. I stood there, too shocked to run away, too terrified to go forward.
It was then I felt but the slightest touch on my sleeve. I jumped. I leapt away, backing up to a wall, expecting a sword in my belly at any moment.
But it was no soldier. It was a grey-headed old woman, short and stooped, her own eyes wide with shock. She reached out and up to put her hand on my shoulder.
“Cristoforo. Do you not recognize me? It is I, Rosa. Your old nurse.”
I stared at her but did not actually see her at first through a haze caused tears of shock. I concentrated on calm. My breathing slowed and yes, I began to realize…Her face came into focus. I had not seen her for years. My family had long ago retired her. I’m sure my mother must have arranged for her a generous stipend. Most likely she still had relatives who worked for my family. Or she’d once had relatives. They were probably dead too.
“Come,” Rosa said. “It is dangerous for you here. Come with me.”
She had taken my limp hand and began tugging me, urging me to follow her. She was so small, I could easily have resisted her. But.. “Are they all dead?” I asked.
She nodded, tears in her eyes. “My son too. But how did you… You were at the Charterhouse, were you not? How have you come here? It is too dangerous for you here!”
“I…” I drew myself up then, pushing aside my fears and my emotions. I brushed off her hold on me, but gently. “I thank you for offering me help, honored mother. But it is too dangerous for you to help me.”
“Come,” she insisted, plucking at my tunic. “I do it for the love of your mother, and I claim the right to help you as I suckled you on my breast. I will hide you until these creatures are all drunk with their victory. Then I will arrange for you to leave Firenze.”
“Yes, all right.” I replied. Where else could I go? I followed her dutifully. She lead me down some twisty dark alleys. We had to stop several times to avoid being seen by passing men. They were not really searching, but seemed more intent on bragging and drinking than on killing anyone left.
I stopped then, and let Rosa continue. I was suddenly completely sure of what I must do, even if I was unclear on how to accomplish it. Rosa turned around and met my eyes.
“I must return to la Certosa Di Montebenedetto.”
She pursed her lips, shook her head, and cursed. Fear was apparent in her every word. “NO! You must not. They know you were there. They will send someone to kill you.”
It was then I finally put it all together. It was then I finally realized that my Angel had been sent to the Charterhouse by my family’s enemies. He had been sent not from God but from Satan.
Rosa hid me for almost a week. During that sojourn I crept out at night and haunted the areas near my family’s villa. I listened to the locals speak as they met at the well. All the news was bad. My brothers, my sisters and their families: all dead. The family’s assets had been assumed by a little-known family called the Medicis.
Realistically there was nothing I could do. I knew my father would expect me to avenge our family, but how could I manage that? There was only me. I’d never been trained in weaponry. I knew nothing of warfare, of commerce, nor of politics, so I couldn’t even use my brain, my lone asset, to avenge him.
All I’d ever known was the Church. I’d been shielded from the rest of it, kept apart. Few outside the family even knew of my existence. Or so I thought. But they had sent someone to kill me, so they had known of me.
I thought about that assassin. Now that I knew he had not been an Angel, I considered what had happened and tried to piece it all together into some sort of coherent whole.
I’d never seen anyone who’d been able to do the things my Angel had done. He’d appeared out of thin air. He’d moved me, instantaneously, from the Charterhouse many days journey from Firenze, to right into the city. And afterwards he’d disappeared again.
Yes, I’d heard of the Strega, and the Evil Eye and Magic. I’d thought it all silly gossip. The only miracles were those that God made possible. Or Satan.
Had the Medicis made a pact with Satan? I hardly thought God would do such a thing. Had Satan, for a price, arranged this miracle? Had such a miracle given them entry into my father’s house? Or had it been a simple betrayal? I would most likely never know. And, really, it made little difference to me. My family was dead, either way.
Then finally came a night when Rosa told me to ready myself. She’d arranged for me to leave Firenze via a vegetable cart. I dressed in the filthy clothes of a peasant boy. She sat me down amongst the vegetables on only rough burlap, my face dirtied, my hair mussed up, my feet filthy and bare to the cold of an autumn night. She kissed my lips and cried. She waved as we went off slowly. I did not cry. So it was I left Firenze.
The cart took me up into the hills above the city, up to the ancient town of Fiesole.
There was a small vegetable farm owned by Rosa’s cousin just beyond the town; this was where I was to live. I still did not see any other options for me, so I passively accepted this new existence. Really, it was not that different from the Charterhouse. I said my prayers, I worked doing what I was told to do, I ate, I slept.
I didn’t mind this existence. I liked old Donata. She lived up to her name. She shared what little she had. She sewed me clothing. She found me sandals. She gave me a bed in the corner by the fire. In return I drew her water, took care of her cows and chickens, ran errands for her and did all the other many things a peasant must do to survive.
When I went to town I made myself known as her nephew, Carmine. The sudden appearance of a boy to help her hardly raised an eyebrow. She might be poor but she would need help, and family would be who she would turn to first.
When the spring came I was still with her. We’d grown to trust one another, and we made a life together.
I tilled her garden and planted it. I loved working in the dirt. I could think as I did the simple chores.
I’d made a few friends by then, some young men near my own age. But I was shy and said little. They were either married or soon to be. They thought me simple, I think. Yet they did not make fun of me. In truth, I was afraid to say much as my education might well have given me away. But I was picking up the local patois and practicing it on Donata. She approved of this, as it made her safer, too.
It was nearly summer when armsmen came to the village. I heard of their arrival from a passing farmer. I warned Donata and wondered aloud what I should do. Donata insisted I continue to do my usual chores and not attempt to hide. They’d have known I was missing, and if I disappeared that alone would be cause for additional interest. I saw the wisdom in this and agreed to act as if nothing whatever were the matter. My only fear was that I would lack the courage necessary if they came for me.
I was plucking weeds in the vegetable garden when they rode up to Donata’s little hut.
I was sweaty and dirty and cowered when they rode over to surround me, utilizing their giant horses to advantage. One dismounted and pushed me to the ground,. Their horses were trampling the plants I’d only just given loving care. I lay in the sad remains of my labours. The armsmen looked down on me with open contempt.
I hid my anger. And I was terrified, I’ll admit; that I let them see. That they liked.
After shoving me around and striking me a couple of times, they laughed, said no Abrizzi would allow such treatment so the rumors that I was the missing son must be wrong. Finally they left. I lay where they’d thrown me down, having pissed on me as well.
That was when I began to seriously plot revenge.