This is Part 1 of a 5-part novella. To download the ebook of this part, click here.
A few words in this book are in Sereidenikè, the language of the sereidees. The full glossary is here.
The late fifteenth century
The monk collapsed as night fell, tumbling into the brush at the side of the road, the snapping of branches like firecrackers; Magnus bit back his cry of triumph at the sight. Birds rose up at the crash, then settled again, and all was silent once more. Past the heap of the body was an expanse of wild fields, and beyond that, copses of browning trees spiked with green-black cypress, all the way to the horizon; but this was an illusion, for ahead the road rose slightly, and if one were to crest that next hill, they would come in sight of stone walls enclosing a hospice, promising food and shelter to all who made it to the gate.
The monk, of course, had not made it to the gate, and thus as matters stood he was fucked. Just as Magnus had predicted. In all likelihood, he had expected God to guide his steps to Florence, and God in His infinite wisdom had flicked the monk aside like so much refuse. Now he was little more than a heap of filthy fabrics, with two blistered feet sticking out, clad in leather that barely remembered being sandals.
“Well,” said Adrian wearily, “that is a pathetic sight, and I have seen my share of pathetic sights.”
Magnus looked down at his genetes’s bowed, dark head and held out his hand. They had switched to Tuscan some weeks ago in preparation, until the lilting syllables came naturally once again; but certain words, like genetes, seemed to resist translation. What in Tuscan could encompass all that Adrian was to him, or what they were in themselves?
With a pained sigh, Adrian felt around in his satchel, then dropped a stack of coins into Magnus’s upturned palm. “Unlike your gloating, which is merely sickening,” he continued. “Now what do we do?”
“Drink him,” Magnus opined, letting the tips of his fangs show as he counted the coins. “How far do you think we are from the hospice?”
“Another word out of your mouth and I will vomit, Magnus; I swear it.”
“I believe I wagered not only that he would never make the hospice, he would drop less than a half day’s walk from its door.”
“I will vomit on your boots.”
“With your ample wager, I can buy new ones.” He shrugged at Adrian’s exasperated groan. “I have no idea what you thought to accomplish with him, anyway. What does it matter that he’s going the same way? We can be in Florence in a few nights if we move quickly. Let’s just go and steal the damn book.”
But Adrian was shaking his head. “How many times must I tell you? We cannot simply steal it. If we steal it, every sereides, every erin from Buda to the sea will know what we are about. We need to take it without upset. We need”—he pointed dramatically at the heap of fabric—“an intercessor.”
“Adrian, there isn’t a dangen for thirty days in any direction—”
“They always know, Magnus.” Adrian spoke through gritted teeth. “A lesson I thought you had finally learned.”
Magnus flushed and looked away, out at the last thin line of purple horizon, the fields dappled with shadows. He had not meant it like that; he had only meant to ease Adrian’s fears. Of course he had learned; how could he not have learned? Their last time in Gotland was forever seared in his memory, and months later it still tainted their every action. They had been punished by their king before, but never before had Gabriel punished them for each other’s actions. To know someone else was suffering for you, because of you … oh, it had shaken Magnus badly, but it had done something more to Adrian, something he didn’t understand and Adrian wouldn’t acknowledge. Even now, this stupid business with the book, it was all Gotland still, Gotland and Adrian’s fear of what happened there, the only rudder to their journey.
He had learned several lessons in Gotland, but Magnus also carried within him earlier lessons about being guided by fear. Lessons he wished he could explain … but he knew Adrian was in no mood to listen, even if he could think of the right words. Adrian’s fear was over a millennium old, as well worn as a lucky charm, as vast as a fanatic’s faith, and as refined as a philosophy. It would take a clever man to convince him otherwise, and Magnus was in no way clever.
“So, what do we do?” he asked instead.
“I don’t know,” Adrian said, a hint of panic in his voice. “Damn it all. Damn it all to—”
And then he stopped, his youthful, olive face twisting into something sly, almost cruel, as he contemplated the heaped body. Magnus, following his gaze, saw it then: one blistered foot twitched, as if in sleep. “Shit,” he said.
“He’s alive,” Adrian breathed at the same time. “Fetch him, Magnus. We can bring him to the hospice.”
“Carry him? Adrian, he stinks—”
But Magnus was silenced with a look, one he knew all too well. It was a look that brooked no argument; past experience had taught him that testing that resolve would unleash a torrent of violence and fury, ending only when Adrian regained his senses, for the erines of Gabriel Berger knew little of tiring and a great deal about punishing weakness. Adrian had softened over the centuries, but he was still Gabriel’s creation. The possibility of failure, with all its horrifying repercussions, always brought out the worst in him, and how much more terrible would it be now?
Instead, Magnus nodded, and the look turned away, taking with it some of the tension of the moment. He handed his own satchel to Adrian and strode up the road to the limp body of the monk. Unshaven and sallow; days, perhaps weeks since he last washed. The white tunic of the Dominican order, worn and greying, bore brown streaks that Magnus fervently hoped were nothing more than mud. Taking a last breath of fresh air, he bent over and felt the man’s thready pulse, then shouldered him, shaking out the habit as best he could to remove the fleas and lice. Adrian was already striding down the road, their bags bouncing on his shoulder, purposeful once more; Magnus fell into step after him and silently hoped that the hospice had some manner of bath.
The hospice did not have a bath. It did, however, have a room for washing, full cisterns, roaring fires, and plenty of novices to bring him buckets of hot water. It was with a sigh of pleasure that Magnus stripped naked and set to bathing, dunking the cloth again and again, scrubbing at skin and hair alike. He poured out an entire bucket over himself, relishing the warmth—when men smelled as bad as the monk, he knew from years of practice mere wiping would not suffice. Too, there was something about water. It seemed to carry away all unpleasantness; it seemed, at times, a kind of rebirth. After Gotland, he had heated the water to a boil and poured the simmering cascade over himself, and again, and again; the scalding had felt a kind of healing.
After the first such dousing, Adrian had walked out of the room and had not come back until daybreak.
But that was past now. Or so Adrian had said; had said too that this one last task would put the seal on it. They would be free, for a time, as they had been before … except that they had never been free as Magnus understood the word. There was Adrian’s will, and there was Gabriel’s hanging like a sword over them both. All his life since being made erin was a balancing act between these two, as constant and relentless as the stars.
He dried himself and dressed, wincing at the caked mud on his dove-grey hose, the road smells of his linen shirt and brown tunic, then sighed when he spotted the wine and salad they had left him. What he would not give right now to get roaring drunk. Three days in a boozy stupor, with a wench or even a comely man; Adrian had taught him some of the pleasures of the latter. That was healing as he’d known it, four damn centuries and still he missed it—
Like a child, he stuck his finger in the wine and tasted it, but as always, it tasted sour and his throat closed. To live so long had been a gift, one he had never regretted, even with Gotland; but it seemed a touch cruel that he should do so only to be constantly faced with delights he would never know, like trebbiano wine.
Instead, he made his way to the warren of small rooms set aside for travelers, crossing the moonlit courtyard and turning down one small hall and then another. The courtyard garden’s sweetness trailed in after him, rosemary and comfrey mingling with the greasy smell of tallow candles. Elsewhere he knew there were sickrooms and rooms for foundlings. It was a bustling place, despite the emptiness of the surrounding countryside: more like a village sharing a common building.
And everywhere small, olive-skinned monks, darting to and fro. All in the brown robes of Franciscans, not Dominicans like their monk. There had been whispers when they had brought their monk in; he seemed to be a remarkable one. The hospice’s prior had nearly spirited him away, but Adrian had intervened, insisting that the monk be placed in an adjoining room at their expense. Another thing that tasted sour to Magnus. They had little money on them as it was. To spend it housing a strange monk in his own room? In other circumstances, Adrian would have sneered at the very idea.
Oh, it all felt wrong, and they hadn’t even reached Florence.
As he reached their rooms, Magnus caught the eye of a novice at the end of the hall—one of the ones who had brought him the hot water. The young man smiled shyly and bowed, then vanished into the shadows, but not without a curious glance at the last moment. Few openly recoiled from Magnus’s kind, but it was common to sense a careful distance in the men they dealt with. Open curiosity? Now, that was a rare trait indeed. Wide brown eyes and chestnut curls … too young for his tastes, but perhaps Adrian—? It might ease matters if Magnus could find him someone to fuck; if nothing else, a sated Adrian was better at listening.
The first door revealed their own room, empty, the bed untouched. Sighing, he opened the second door, only to be struck by a wave of sweat and urine. Sickroom smells mingling with tallow smoke—marvelous. Adrian was seated on a little chair at the bedside, a smile on his lips, for the monk was awake. As Magnus entered, the monk turned to him, the candlelight revealing a gaunt face crowned by a sunburnt tonsure, with clear grey eyes that seemed to bore straight into him, to see everything he kept within himself; the sensation made him shudder.
“Thanks be to God for enabling our prodigious encounter,” the monk said, making the sign of the cross over him. “Truly, that we met under such unusual circumstances shows His hand at work.”
Magnus blinked, taken aback; he looked at Adrian, who was smiling beatifically. “Magnus, this is Fra Girolamo,” he said. “He is bound for Florence, just as we are.”
“Remarkable,” Magnus said, “considering this is the road to Florence.”
“I have been telling Fra Girolamo of our troubles,” Adrian continued in the same honeyed tone. “Though soon, of course, we will have our audience with Signore Lorenzo and be restored our rightful property.”
“Lorenzo il Magnifico can do anything, they say,” Magnus agreed, leaning against the wall.
“My brothers,” Fra Girolamo said, “You would do better to put your faith in God than in Lorenzo de’ Medici. Whatever they say about him, he is but a man, and like all men, he can lose sight of God’s truth in pursuit of his own desires.” He spread his hands. “What is property compared to a man’s soul?”
Magnus arched his eyebrows at Adrian: Well?
“But that is the very thing, Fra Girolamo,” Adrian said, leaning forward with an earnest expression. “The book that was stolen from my father was one he had willed to our church. It was never intended for the shelves of the Medici. We thought surely Signore Lorenzo would not begrudge our humble village this one bequest, yet our letters have received no response.”
For several heartbeats Fra Girolamo looked at Adrian. It was, to Magnus’s eye, a measured look, not a sympathetic one. “Two men, seeking a book from Lorenzo de’ Medici,” he said slowly. “Now I understand …” He shook himself, then began pushing aside the thin blanket. “We shall pray for guidance.”
Aghast, Magnus watched as Fra Girolamo eased himself out of the bed and knelt on the stone floor. Adrian’s face lapsed briefly into pure exasperation, but when he caught Magnus’s eye, he only jerked his finger at the floor, an order that brooked no argument, and lowered himself beside the monk.
Magnus got to his knees and folded his hands. The sickroom smell was worse now, closer to the blanket; he watched a bedbug crawl from wrinkle to wrinkle as the monk began praying in a low, driving Latin. Across the bed his gaze met Adrian’s once more: he mouthed Two days of this, and Adrian shrugged and mouthed Better plan, and Magnus exhaled. Surely, thefts happened every day in Florence, what would be one more?
But there was Adrian’s fear, steering them, and he had nothing to counter it.
At last the monk went back to sleep, and Magnus and Adrian returned to their own room. “How can a man pray for over an hour?” Adrian sat down on the sagging bed, the ropes creaking in protest, and began pulling off his boots. “How can he think of that much to say?”
“We cannot travel with him,” Magnus said, sitting precariously on the lone chair. Everything in the hospice seemed designed for the skinny, stooped Franciscans, not his own oversized frame. “Even if we could persuade him to travel at night, he won’t make Florence, Adrian, because I will kill him well before we get there.”
He braced for Adrian’s anger, but the latter only tittered. “Perhaps that’s why his god brought us together—to make Fra Girolamo shut up once and for all.” Suddenly, his head turned. “Is that someone in the hall? See if they’re bringing him food.”
Magnus went to the door and peeked out, then opened it completely. The shy novice paused, a tray clutched in his hands, and inclined his head. “God be with you, Signore.”
“And with you. Is that for the friar?” Magnus inquired, smiling as the young man’s cheeks flushed.
“A good broth, to help him regain his strength,” the novice assented.
“Magnus, I want a word with him,” Adrian called.
“If you could come in for a moment,” Magnus said, stepping aside to let the novice in. His smile broadened as he saw Adrian do a double take, and the novice’s flush deepened.
“I just wanted you to know that Fra Girolamo is sleeping,” Adrian explained, his voice gentle. “But please, put that down for a moment and rest. You’ve been on your feet all day; I can tell.”
At the latter, the novice’s face became an alarming shade of red, but he put the tray down on the rickety table and sat in the chair Magnus had vacated, his eyes on the floor. Adrian stretched leisurely, then strolled over to the tray and bent over it, fanning the steam to his nostrils and breathing deeply. “It smells marvelous,” he purred. “Did you make this?”
“No, Signore,” the novice gasped. But he did not raise his eyes, and thus only Magnus saw Adrian quickly nip at his forefinger, then squeeze a few drops of his blood into the wine. Just enough to put a flush back into the monk’s gaunt, sickly face; Magnus tried to imagine a truly robust Fra Girolamo and failed.
“Yet you are taking such good care of Fra Girolamo,” Adrian said. “We are grateful for all that you and your brothers have done for us.”
He was standing close to the novice, so close. The novice raised his eyes, only to stare at the gathered skirt of Adrian’s doublet. “Perhaps you could bring us some as well,” Adrian continued. “After you finish your tasks?”
“I—I will tell them, Signore—”
“I would prefer that you bring it yourself,” Adrian interrupted in the same gentle voice. “Though if duty prevents you, I shall not take it as an insult.”
The novice opened his mouth and closed it, fishlike, his heartbeat loud in the little room. Despite himself, Magnus’s fangs were poking from his gums in anticipation. He had fed on the road, he had no real appetite as such; but oh, the novice was like a succulent fruit, all but dripping with juices. Ages since he’d had anyone so young. Ages, too, since he’d had another soul look at him with real desire—
“May I bring the tray to Fra Girolamo now?” the novice asked, his voice trembling.
With a flourish Adrian stepped back, letting the novice take up the tray once more. He went to the door but stopped again and asked in a squeak, “Is it true?”
Magnus looked at Adrian, but the latter made a cutting gesture. “Is what true, my brother?”
“Fra Girolamo. Is he the one they speak of? From Bologna? Who has been given visions by God?” The novice’s eyes were alight with excitement. “Is he Savonarola?”
Adrian stared at him, astonished; and then he shrugged, all gentle flirtation gone. “I have no idea,” he said. “Why don’t you ask him yourself?”
The novice didn’t seem to notice the change in Adrian’s tone; he bowed and darted from the room. As soon as he was gone, Adrian’s face became a mask of fury. For a moment he stood there, trembling, fangs jutting from his mouth, breath hissing in his throat; had they been more isolated, Magnus knew, the furniture would have been kicked to kindling. At last he drew his fangs up and pointed at Magnus. “Pack your things. We leave at sundown.”
“The monk no longer suits?” Magnus asked mildly.
“If he’s deliberately given himself such a reputation, he’ll be more interested in allying with Lorenzo than aiding our cause. If he’s a fanatic and figures out what we are, we could end up facing a mob.” Adrian shook his head, fuming. “All the bloody monks in the world and I get the one with visions, who’s already so infamous they’ve heard his name in this shithole of a hospice. We’ve wasted a night and the price of two rooms. Why aren’t you packing?”
“Because he still may be of use,” Magnus continued in the same mild tone. “If he’s infamous, Lorenzo will certainly want to meet him when he arrives; hell, Lorenzo probably sent for him in the first place. Two followers in his wake would not be closely inspected.”
Adrian scowled but said nothing.
“Or are you just angry because that novice prefers to sit at the monk’s bedside rather than let you test his faith?”
Adrian kicked Magnus, but it was a glancing blow, his anger settling into a pout. Magnus grinned. “And I see I divined correctly …”
“Do not pun, Magnus. Your puns are excruciating.” But a smile was tugging at Adrian’s mouth. “Besides, I thought my whole plan was moot, as you would murder him before we set foot in the city?”
“Was that a plan? I thought that was just a passing fancy, like when you bought that blue hose that stained your legs.” Before Adrian could reply, he continued. “We can go ahead, arrange to cross his path again in Florence—”
“Oh, no, no, Magnus. We couldn’t do that. If we leave without him, he’ll set out on foot again, and the next time he drops, he won’t get up.” Adrian grinned at him. “No, Magnus, your superior wisdom has convinced me. We shall hire a cart, and we shall deliver this monk to Florence ourselves, the better to be received by Lorenzo il Magnifico.”
Magnus frowned, going over their conversation in his mind. “Did I—did I just fuck myself?”
“Unless we can hire that novice to drive us, and then he can fuck us both.” Adrian went to the window, pressing his face to the crack between the shutters. “Half the night gone already,” he mused. “He won’t be ready tomorrow … Two, even three days before we could leave … They won’t be in a hurry to release him if they think him some kind of prophet …” He tapped the wood as he thought. “No, Magnus, you may be right yet again, though it is agony for me to admit it. Our monk’s usefulness lies in Florence. We’ll leave money for his transportation, to ensure he makes it there in one piece. You and I will go ahead. I don’t want to alarm the infamous Savonarola with our habits, and I want to make sure none of our fellows are near enough to interfere. Too many of the dangenes bank with Florentines, and would love an excuse to pick a fight with Gabriel … and then there’s our own erines to contend with. We’ll ask some questions on the road and fine-tune our tale of woe for Fra Girolamo. Surely, he’ll intercede on behalf of those who showed him such generosity.”
Magnus frowned. “What if he vanishes inside a monastery and refuses to see us?”
“Oh, that one will never hide away. He needs an audience, no matter his intent.” Adrian barked with laughter. “‘Visions from God!’ That novice was practically panting at the thought. Can you imagine the arrogance, to think the divine speaks to you directly?”
“I can not only imagine it, I’ve smelled it up close,” Magnus muttered.
“And your suffering is noted. Do you want to spend the day here or leave now?”
“If we spend an entire day here, Adrian, you won’t keep your hands to yourself—and then all the novices will be whispering about your icy affection.”
“Only one novice, Magnus; I abhor a crowd, as well you know. Too many things sticking into too many places; I get distracted.” He counted off his fingers. “So, you to pack and find the quickest egress from this place, I to the stables to arrange something for our monk.”
“By arrange, of course, you mean tupping that novice.”
“Who said anything about tupping? I am only thinking to comfort a poor young man, who has nothing to entertain himself but prayer and servitude.” When Magnus only scowled, Adrian rose up on his toes and kissed him wetly on the cheek. “Next time, we’ll be sure to stop at a nunnery,” he said, and slipped out into the hall.
They left the hospice a few hours before dawn, a pile of coins and a scribbled note of instructions on the table, then over the wall to avoid the dozing guard at the gate, their departure witnessed only by the rows of shuttered windows like so many reptilian eyes. Outside, the moon hung clear and bright in the vast bowl of the sky, the stars an explosion of light across the blackness, and Magnus felt himself ease with each step. The monk had irritated him, and monasteries unnerved him. There was always an undercurrent, different flavors of frustration and appetite; he knew too much about both to rest calmly in its presence.
Nunneries: now, that was a different matter entirely. Frustrated novices in nunneries. The thought made him smile, but he quickly banished the images from his mind. Adrian was swinging from tense to amused and back again, and Magnus knew to tread carefully. Even his tryst in the stables had not completely unwound him. Nearly a year since Gotland now. Time had changed once Magnus was made erin: the years felt like months, even weeks sometimes … but he was starting to think that Gotland had marked them permanently. For four centuries he had watched Adrian slowly shed the cruel servant Magnus had first known. That he might retreat to that again—oh, Magnus couldn’t bear to think it.
They didn’t have to do this. There had been no express order to retrieve this book; it had been a request, the kind of thing Gabriel did from time to time, the better to watch his erines fight like dogs to further win favor. It would please me to have it, at any price save suspicion. The please alone had kept Adrian awake for days, trying to tease out all the possibilities. But they didn’t want to be dogs—or at least Magnus did not. Gotland had shown him he could be driven to that, as so many had before him. Months of such abuse? He would be clamoring to lick Gabriel’s shoes, wipe his ass, anything to be treated with something less than that unending viciousness. Adrian had decided the book could buy them further respite, that fawning obedience plus winning Gabriel his prize would earn them another period of grace. It would please me. But Magnus thought it best to stay out of mind, forgotten—and there was also the simple logistics of delivery.
If Adrian walked into that castle again, Magnus feared he would never, ever come out.
“Who else do you think will try for it?” he asked.
Adrian blinked, lost in his own thoughts, then looked up at him. “Of our fellows? I’m not certain. Seissan definitely, and he’ll be clever about it. He knows how men work and he has ambition enough for all of us. Gemma may well have a go, to spite Seissan if nothing else. Thaddeus is far enough, I think, that he can ignore it without losing face. Ihsan? I cannot say, but I can never say with her …”
Adrian snorted. “Never. If he’s pushed to it, he’ll send one of his own erines, no matter the risk.” His expression softened then. “He has survived this long by cowering, and I cannot say as I blame him. But we know now what hiding can lead to.”
“Adrian,” Magnus began carefully, “we cannot let Gabriel rule our every action—”
“Magnus,” Adrian cut in, “he is my genetes. Ruling me is the bedrock he built me on.”
“But you are more than that. You were more than that when he found you, and you are still more than that.” Magnus stopped in the road, trying to catch Adrian’s eye. “Just think around him, as we’ve always done. If Seissan wins the book instead of us, would it not be as much a distraction? He’ll use it to be made cagè, perhaps even cifet, and the Skìa will hate him for rising so quickly; the infighting alone will entertain Gabriel for months. And Seissan may be an asshole, but he’s an asshole who can be bargained with. It could serve our purpose just as well to help him.”
Adrian frowned. “I will think on it,” he said curtly, turning to walk—
“Adrian, we cannot go back to Gotland,” Magnus said. “Not so soon. It doesn’t matter what you bring him. It will be a flag in front of a bull.”
“I’m not asking you to go back, Magnus.” He spat the words out. “This is between myself and Gabriel. You’re merely a moment of my weakness, remember? A lapse of my judgment, a waste of my blood and thus his blood, and he can only indulge so much. Four centuries he waited to use that one against us, and I’m only surprised he didn’t hold out longer. His games are long, Magnus—as I should know,” he pressed as Magnus started to speak, his voice rising to a whine. “You might say I know him inside and out. So I will ask, my creation, that you defer to my expertise, especially as you won’t be taking any risk?”
Every word a slap. Magnus looked away, swallowing hard to keep his throat from closing. Too far, he had gone too far. He knew Adrian was speaking out of fear, that he didn’t—he couldn’t—mean to hurt him. It didn’t make it any easier to listen to.
And before Gotland, Adrian would have noticed his response; noticed it and bridged the gap between them with an apology, a touch, even if he would brook no more discussion. But his genetes was already well down the road, his dark hair bouncing and his boots slapping the packed earth of the road, striding with single-minded purpose toward Florence.