|The Tale of the Doctor
Author: Guede Mazaka
Philippe Senderos, according to the innkeeper, had some medicinal skill. The man had pointed to a boy running across the street and said his broken leg had been mended by Senderos, and then to a woman just ducking out the door and said she’d been nursed through a fever by the same man. She was some sort of distant relation to him, but she had had a short, stout figure and a sun-browned complexion, the very picture of rural health. The pale, gawky youth who unfolded himself from the corner of the cramped smithy had a kindly enough look to him, but seemed as if he were in need of several good meals and a stint in the confessional. To Paolo’s eye he was little older than Zlatan.
“You the doctor?” grunted Paolo’s guard, a thick-set, coarse-mannered man who flavored his words with traces of Ferrara and Bologna.
A sudden crashing at Paolo’s elbow made him flinch and turn, then raise his hand against the brilliant spout of red and orange sparks that rose into the air. He dimly heard Senderos answer, but the substance of it was lost in the ringing of the smith’s hammer. The sooty air and the heat stung at his eyes so he rubbed at them and thus must have missed something his guard had said, since the next he knew a rough grip on his elbow had swung him back through the doorway.
Some pebbles clattered away as he stumbled, then regained his balance and straightened. The sunlight momentarily dazzled his eyes. He blinked, fighting back a hoarse cough.
“I do a little doctoring.” Senderos’ voice was deep and his accent wasn’t very noticeable, but he spoke so softly that it was difficult to understand him. His silhouette against the hulking dark smithy was stoop-shouldered and retiring, and when Paolo’s vision had adjusted, he saw that the lines across Senderos’ forehead hadn’t been a trick of the flickering flames. “But it’s not…I haven’t apprenticed anywhere. I’m a—”
“It doesn’t matter what else you do. We’re here to know what you know about doctoring.” The guard wore a little contemptuous smile as he glanced at Paolo. Then he stepped nearer to Senderos, his voice rising and coarsening. “And women.”
Growing up in the shadows of the Sforzas’ usurpation had taught Paolo early to disguise his emotions, and his years of schooling in Rome had only hardened those lessons into instinct, but nevertheless it was difficult to calmly look on. He concentrated his attention on a detail of the smithy roof, a broken tile hanging just over Senderos’ left shoulder.
It was a sleepy little village just at the foothills of the Alps, but some townspeople were strolling down its one road and the guard’s loud voice had attracted their attention, to judge from the way Senderos glanced nervously about. He pursed his lips, looking curiously at Paolo, before finally returning his gaze to the guard. “I’m not a midwife, if that’s what you’re asking. There’s a woman in the next village over…”
“We looked her up already and she didn’t know anything, that dry old cunt. She sent us here to look for you.” The guard hawked and spat at their feet. “It’s not about birthing, anyway. Not unless there’s something still stuck in there, and then it’s a surgeon we’re looking for, isn’t it?”
Senderos flattened his lips slightly, but his overall appearance remained so self-effacing that Paolo doubted the guard had noticed. “I’m not sure I can help you,” he reluctantly said. “I’d need to know more.”
Paolo felt the muscles in his jaw tighten as he accepted the jarring elbow in his side. He nodded slightly as a signal to Senderos. “My wife gave birth to a son two weeks ago. It’s our second, and the…everything was normal up till a few days afterward. Since then she’s sickened till she’s unable to travel.”
“Has she been traveling all this time?” Senderos asked, startled.
“It was absolutely necessary, or else I assure you she would have had a decent lying-in,” Paolo said, lifting his head a little. Of course Senderos would need to be told that and his surprise was justified, but Paolo still couldn’t help feeling stung by the implications in the other man’s tone. “She’s…prone to colds around this time of year. At first we thought it was simply that.”
“Or laziness.” The guard shifted, snorting rudely and staring at a passing woman. When she ducked her head and picked up her skirts to hurry onwards, he made a sucking noise between his teeth in her direction.
He wasn’t the usual guard, but since they’d arrived in the village earlier in the morning, Zlatan had taken away Larsson for other duties. That Paolo sorely regretted, since Larsson had been unflinching in carrying out his orders but at least tempered that with quiet common sense and some unexpected diplomacy. This man had had displayed the fouler aspects of his personality since the first moment he’d laid eyes on Adriana, and it’d been a relief to Paolo that they’d needed so long to have found Senderos, worried as he was about Adriana’s condition.
“Then it could be any number of things.” Senderos hesitated. He turned slightly towards Paolo, but addressed the guard. “I may or may not be able to help with some of them. But I need to know more, and it’d be helpful if I could see the woman at some point.”
“Well, you’re not doing anything now, are you? Because she isn’t, and more’s the pity,” the guard snorted. He turned sharply, so Paolo had to almost skip out of the way of his shoulder, and then made a very showy, mocking bow. “You first, sir.”
Paolo bit the inside of his mouth. He also refrained from letting out the breath he was holding or looking at Senderos till he’d taken a few steps forward, at a natural pace. The people here might cleave more towards the Swiss Confederate states in the north, but this land was currently administered to by the Duchy of Milan. The internal upheaval in that city might be keeping the Sforzas from venturing to the borders, but that hardly meant that they lacked eyes here and that, almost more than Adriana’s health, kept Paolo from allowing himself more than a quick doze at night.
Zlatan had ordered silence from the small group of men who’d been with him when he’d dragged Paolo and his family from the Milan cathedral, and to the rest of his men, like Paolo’s guard, he’d merely said the Maldinis were a noble family they were holding for ransom. So Paolo supposed their secret might still be safe, but nevertheless he forced himself to keep very closely to his guard on the way back to the inn. And, oddly enough, he found himself hoping that there they might meet up with Zlatan again, who at least seemed to care about attracting as little notice as much as they did. Even if his reasons were suspect.
After the first few yards, Senderos quietly queried further as to the course of Adriana’s illness. He might disclaim much special knowledge, but both his manner and line of questioning were very reminiscent of the Maldinis’ own family doctor, a hugely experienced and capable fellow who’d—Paolo ended that recollection, and attempted to answer Senderos as fully and truthfully as he could. He was afraid that the circumstances made him brusque, but once set on the case, Senderos seemed too preoccupied with its details to notice that.
When the guard announced that they’d arrived, both Paolo and Senderos started. Senderos then stopped where he was, looking rather wide-eyed at the number of horses and armed men milling about in the courtyard before the place. He started to ask Paolo something, but a hail interrupted them.
The guard backed off as Zlatan came striding up, his wet hair slicked back from his eyes and his shirt thrown over one damp shoulder. A faint aroma of lavender preceded him, so Paolo guessed he’d just finished his daily washing at the well in the back, a peculiarity in which he indulged in almost any weather and somehow without any adverse effect on his health.
“You’re the doctor?” he said, addressing Senderos. His eyes flicked over the other man—Paolo blinked; the youth of the two was all the more striking when brought together—as Senderos stammered a short introduction and another version of his disclaimer regarding his skills. “You’re my age.”
Senderos blinked a few times, like the way a dog did upon waking. Then he drew himself up slightly and Paolo realized to some surprise that Senderos also was nearly as tall as Zlatan. “I’ve paid my way from Geneva by doing a little doctoring.”
Zlatan grinned, pulling his lips past his canines. “So you’re a good walker. You do look like that. But they do grow taller up in the mountains—been a while since I could look at so many people without cricking my neck. We’ve been here half a day and I’m already overflowing with recruits your size, so if you mess up, you can’t make it up that way.”
“I can’t say how much I can do before I see the lady, and even then I might not be able to help. Only a miracle of God can always guarantee a cure. But I try to do the best I can to help the stricken and the hurt,” Senderos said. He still spoke quietly, but there was a new firmness in his voice and though his shoulders remained hunched, he met Zlatan’s gaze with steadiness. Few people, and Paolo included himself on occasion, would go that far.
The veneer of humor on Zlatan’s face thinned till it no longer hid the hard, cynical intelligence that made men many years older flinch before him. For a long few seconds he looked at Senderos, and all around them men softened their steps or else swung wide; the guard behind Paolo began to mumble and when a metallic scraping came from his direction, Paolo glanced back to see that he’d begun to finger a dagger.
Then Zlatan snorted and Paolo hastily looked forward again. The other man was smiling again, close-lipped, and half-turned away to watch some men sparring with long poles as he scrubbed at his hair. “Huh. Eh, Paolo, he doesn’t talk as good as that midwife did, does he? It’s your wife.”
“I’d like for him to speak with her,” Paolo said after a moment. He didn’t look at Senderos, but he could feel the other man’s curiosity like a palpable pressure in the air. “Zlatan…”
“Well, she’s in the drying shed around the back.” Zlatan looked side-long at Paolo, then swung himself across the couple of yards so he could put a familiar hand on Paolo’s shoulder. Amusement returned to his eyes at Paolo’s instinctive stiffening. He tightened his grip. “A table and a couple quilts in with the onions is better than a bed in this pit of an inn, at least from what I saw.” His finger suddenly ran across Paolo’s cheek, the nail catching Paolo’s skin a bit at the end. “Maybe you would’ve found those flea-ridden rooms all right.”
Then he withdrew, his hand held high so Paolo could see the brown smudge on his fingertip. He turned and that hand seamlessly twisted so now he was gesturing at one of his lieutenants to come over. Apparently they were dismissed.
“Bet the lady loves the smell.” Barking a laugh, the guard jostled forward and gave Paolo a hard shove on the shoulder.
The little confrontation only seemed to have whetted the guard’s baser appetites, since as they walked around the inn he let loose with a torrent of abusively descriptive language regarding Adriana. It was a very short distance, but long before they’d reached the shed, Paolo had his hands in fists and was well aware that a high burning color had come into his cheeks. Thankfully Senderos didn’t attempt any conversation, for Paolo doubted he could’ve spoken with any degree of civility.
After a short exchange with the guard on the door, they went inside. The shed only had a few small windows, more for ventilation than anything else, placed high up and so Paolo could barely see but he hurried forward anyway. His outstretched hand hit an edge and he wrapped his fingers over it, then used it to guide himself. “Adriana? Christian?”
A dark round shape at the far end of the table lifted just as something seized Paolo’s knee, then wrapped around it with a desperate ferocity all out of proportion with its size. Paolo swallowed away the sudden tightness in his throat and bent over to thread his fingers into Christian’s hair; his son pressed his head up but didn’t speak. As much as Paolo wanted to commend Christian’s bravery, he wished even more that he could exclude the poor child from this.
“Paolo?” Adriana began to sit up, but she was so weak that she’d hardly lifted more than her head and hand when he reached her. She had Daniel cradled in her other arm and when Paolo gently took the sleeping infant from her, her fingers felt cold and dry.
Paolo settled Daniel in the crook of his arm before taking her hand and kissing its chilly knuckles. Then he remembered the others and looked back: Senderos was standing politely by the door, and while the two guards were nowhere to be seen, Paolo could hear their laughing voices nearby. “Adriana, we found the man the midwife spoke of. His name’s Philippe Senderos and he…he’d like to talk to you, and see if he can tell what’s wrong.”
After a moment, Adriana lifted her head into the light coming in the door. She grimaced, her hand dropping to press low against his belly, and turned as best she could towards Paolo. “You think he’ll know more than she did?”
“He asked some questions already on the way here, and they were intelligent. He’s got a good reputation in the area, it seems,” Paolo said. He felt Christian loosen his arms and move a little, probably to try and see who was at the door.
Adriana glanced that way as well, then tipped her head back. Her face was drawn but for a moment the gleam of her eyes brightened. “Paolo, what do you think of him? I know you’re worried, but I do not think that we’d have to send immediately for a priest if this one doesn’t do any good.”
She tried to smile and Paolo had to remind himself of the baby in his arms, lest he crush it in an echo of the pressure in his chest. “He’s very young, little older than…than Zlatan. And he admits to not having apprenticed with an established doctor—I doubt he’s been to a university either. But I…would like to see what he says after he talks to you.”
“Then I’ll talk to him.” With another grimace, Adriana gingerly laid back. Her eyes briefly closed and she looked too close to Paolo’s worst nightmare for too long before a puff of breath stirred her lips.
Paolo withdrew from the side of the table with a supreme effort of will. In his arms Daniel stirred and the distraction of checking on him helped Paolo compose himself as he went back to the door, Christian trailing a little behind.
“She’ll see you,” he told Senderos.
The other man’s eyes had gone immediately to Daniel and it took him a moment to hear Paolo. He lifted his head with a jerk, a slight frown disappearing from his face, and with a simple nod went inside. Paolo stood where he was and watched carefully as Philippe came up to the table, hands clasped behind his back and greeted Adriana politely before beginning his questioning. The young man was very aware of the potential improprieties and from what Paolo could tell, was doing very well at avoiding them despite his lack of schooling.
In his position by the door, Paolo could see the two guards, who’d moved off a little so they were in the shadow of the shed. The lewd one caught his eye, then made a rude gesture—Paolo looked down and into the upturned, anxious face of Christian. He knelt down, careful not to jounce Daniel, and with relief mixed with regret, started up a quiet conversation about the new things Christian had seen today and the differences between here and Milan. His son had been to the family estates in the country before, but he was at the age where memories were like butterflies and so he was easily diverted by something as common as a wild deer.
Paolo’s own need for a distraction must have been greater than he’d thought, since he only realized Senderos had returned to stand by them when the other man cleared his throat. Christian gasped and scooted behind Paolo, seizing his sleeve so Paolo was temporarily unbalanced and had to put down a hand to steady himself. Then he gently detached his son’s hand and stood up. “Well?”
“I’ve got an idea of what might be it, but the thing is, there are a few other problems I can’t rule out yet. And I want to be sure, because—” Senderos stopped himself, the animation abruptly leaving his face. He rubbed at the back of his head, shooting uncertain glances at Paolo and Daniel. “You don’t have a wet-nurse traveling with you, do you?”
“No,” Paolo said. His attention sharpened to the point where he was surprised to look at his hand curved around Daniel and find it smooth-skinned, without nerves straining to snap out of it.
Senderos nodded. “The problem is, if it is one of the other things, I can make you a medicine that’d help, but it’s the sort that passes into mother’s milk and it would hurt him. If it’s what I think it is, then that would be less of a worry but she can’t be moved for at least a week.”
That would not please Zlatan, but Paolo would deal with that if he had to. “Is there a way to differentiate between the possibilities?”
“Yes, but…I’m sorry. You may find this rude.” Two slashes of red slowly appeared across the tops of Senderos’ cheeks, and he drew in his shoulders and lowered his head till he and Paolo were at the same height. “I want to say that I don’t mean that at all, and that all I want to do is heal sick bodies—sick people. To get rid of the illness. I don’t care about anything else—”
“If it can restore my wife’s health, I’m willing to give any idea you may have a fair hearing,” Paolo finally interrupted, seeing that the other man was drifting off in his embarrassment. “Please just tell me, and I give you my word as a—I swear on my sons’ heads that I will listen first.”
Senderos looked hard at him, then ducked away. He glanced at the guards, which was when the first inklings came into Paolo’s mind, before sighing and staring down at his feet. “I didn’t learn this from a…a doctor with a license, or with books to testify to his learning, and I know it sounds immoral so I try not to advertise it. But my mother was a midwife with no man so she had to take me everywhere. She was very good—out of eight hundred or so babies, she lost just thirteen at birth, and only ten mothers within the first two months after birth.”
“You want to examine her.” Paolo said it flatly. He thought he heard Adriana move and grimaced, then turned to Christian and asked him to go comfort her. After he heard his son leave, he looked at Senderos again. “The midwife at the birth said she passed the afterbirth.”
“I know. It’s not that—I don’t want to put a hand in her.” Senderos flinched again, digging his nails into the side of his head. “But sometimes you can tell things just by…by looking at the outside, and feeling the belly.”
It wasn’t the fact that he’d given his word not to that restrained Paolo’s impulse to strike the other man, because the sheer impudence of the suggestion had made all memory of that fly out of Paolo’s mind. It was that Adriana groaned just as he was raising his hand.
Paolo hesitated, then lowered his arm. He looked down at Daniel, at the round face and the tiny perfect lashes, and then looked up again. “If she consents as well when you ask her, then…I’ll be staying in the room. And not now—I have to speak to the others.”
“You’ll have to help me lift her legs anyway,” Senderos said, tone still heavy with embarrassment.
He glanced at Paolo, then went back to Adriana’s side and bent over her. They spoke and Adriana lifted her head to gaze searchingly at Paolo. After an agonizing moment, he moved his head in a stiff nod; a slight trace of relief passed over her face and he let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, thankful that at least she agreed with him.
Senderos came back, pulling at his nose so he couldn’t look directly at Paolo. His continued awkwardness was beginning to become oddly reassuring. “Well, I guess you need to talk to people, and I—I need to get some things. I’ll…need about an hour or so.”
“That’ll be fine,” Paolo said. He was calming down now, and starting to appreciate just how much tact the other man was employing.
Neither of them signaled, but the guards must have been watching more carefully than they’d let on since then the one who’d been posted at the shed came forward to speak to Senderos. He wanted to know what they’d been discussing, but let Paolo slip back inside to return Daniel to Adriana’s care.
After helping Christian, who said he was tired, up onto the table to lie beside her, Paolo went back outside and found to his dismay that that guard had gone off with Senderos, leaving the leering one. Paolo still had his hand on the loop of rope that served as the door-handle and he used it to pull the door shut just as that man swaggered up.
“Hey, open that back up.” He stopped a few feet before Paolo, his hand resting lightly on the hilt of the sword thrust through his belt. When he saw that Paolo’s eyes had gone to that, he grinned and shoved his face forward. “I’m to keep all of you in my sight, all the time. So if you don’t open that, I’ll have to.”
“My wife is ill and needs the quiet,” Paolo said through gritted teeth. He turned slightly so he was blocking the entire doorway.
The guard snorted and rolled his shoulders, as if he were showing off in a tavern for a whore or for his drunken friends. “Your pretty wife can do that with the door open. Anyway, I heard you and the doctor and seems like you don’t mind lifting her skirts for a boy like that, so maybe you’d like to do it for somebody who could do you a favor or two.”
Paolo stepped forward without thinking, then froze as the guard’s hand jerked and two inches of steel suddenly sparkled in the sunlight. He swallowed hard, hoping that the shed walls were keeping this from Adriana’s and Christian’s ears. “If you have any respect for mothers or innocent children, leave her alone. She’s nursing our youngest when she can barely sit up.”
“Well, my mother used to throw pots at me when she was too laid out from the whoring she did to cook the food it’d gotten us, and I turned out fine,” the guard shrugged. He looked down at his hand, then shoved his sword back into its scabbard. “But right, you’re to be kept nice, says the commander. Never would’ve figured him to be an ass-lover, the way he can fight, and then never would’ve figured him to have a taste for wrinkled old lords. And your wife so pretty…hell, maybe when you’re up with him, she’ll figure out she’d like a taste of—”
As he spoke the man had moved forward and reached towards Paolo’s face; Paolo had likewise retreated, but then his back hit the door. He pressed his hands to either side of the frame and gouged at the wood, watching the guard’s dirty cracked nails come towards him and telling himself not to provoke worse. And he’d just committed to that when the man actually did touch him, a fingertip across the cheek in mimicry of Zlatan earlier. But if Zlatan’s actions were inciting, this was—this was—Paolo slapped the man’s wrist away.
Then he started to twist to the side, but he remembered his family behind the door and paused, and that left him open to a fist in the gut. It didn’t hurt but the force of it slammed him back into the door and made him double over, his arm instinctively swinging up over his belly. Then he tried to breathe and he couldn’t: the air rasped through his nose and mouth and burned up in his throat as he wheezed, his chest suddenly on fire.
His knees gave out and he began to fall, but something went by him and Paolo made himself turn, throwing his weight as hard as he could into the other man’s arm. He managed to knock it away from the door-handle before his shoulder hit the jamb, the impact jolting his head back, but that was the last of his energy. All he could do was stare and gasp as the guard’s red face, grotesquely huge in rage, loomed up before him. He felt fingers close on his shoulder and he thought, Adriana, my sons.
And then the face disappeared as the man was yanked back. Paolo continued his slide down the side of the doorway, his legs feeling oddly detached and the fire in his chest going to a thousand icy stabbing knifes, and in front of him Zlatan used the moment the guard spent catching his balance to pull out his sword. The guard lifted his head, then tried to drop it and draw his sword at the same time—Paolo opened his mouth at the sight of the glinting steel.
More steel flashed. The guard dropped like a sack of grain, his half-drawn sword sticking out from beneath him and blood dripping from where Zlatan had slammed the pommel of his blade into the man’s head. Zlatan looked down at him, eyes coldly measuring, before sticking out a boot and putting it on the man’s sword. He dragged that out, then picked it up. Then he looked over at Paolo.
The door at Paolo’s back moved and Zlatan’s eyes shot past Paolo’s shoulder. Then he blinked and dropped his weight onto his trailing heel, his entire stance changing: shoulders down, head loosely cocked, knees slightly bent. He relaxed, his arms swinging behind himself so the swords were hidden by his body.
“Father?” Christian said. His voice was very small and badly shaking. “Father, we heard a lot of noise and—”
A soft gurgling came from further within the shed: Daniel was awake. Paolo clawed up dirt clods in order to not look behind himself. “It’s all right, Christian. Go back and stay with your mother.”
But Christian had already seen the guard. His hand suddenly came down on Paolo’s shoulder like a miniature lead weight. “Father, what’s wrong with that man? He’s lying funny.”
“He’s sleeping,” Zlatan said. He moved up a step so his boot was blocking the view of the man’s bloody temple. “Taking a nap.”
Paolo stared at Zlatan, but all that was on the other man’s face was a kind of bland nonchalance. “He was tired, just like you were,” he finally told Christian. He risked a glance over his shoulder, patting the boy’s hand. “Now go back, your mother needs you.”
“But he’s on the dirt,” Christian protested.
A flash of irritation went through Zlatan’s eyes, but he kept his voice remarkably calm. “Well, your daddy and I were just going to move him to a nice bed. The idiot, he goes and…falls asleep on the…ground.”
“We’ll help him. Now go.” This time Paolo put a little firmness in his tone and he finally felt Christian let go of him. He waited till he heard small footsteps retreating before he got up, shutting the door along the way.
Zlatan raised an eyebrow, then turned to nod at somebody. As Larsson slipped out and smoothly slid into Paolo’s place before the door, Zlatan took off the guard’s sword-belt and put away his sword and then the guard’s. Then he slung the guard’s belt over a shoulder and reached down to grab the man’s left arm. Paolo started forward, but too slowly; the pain in his chest was dying away and he could breathe again, but not quite freely.
“Come on,” Zlatan grunted, starting to haul the man up. “Unless you want your kid to hear this bastard waking up. Was he like that all day?”
Paolo got the man’s other arm and though the guard was a large man, between himself and Zlatan the weight was manageable. “He was verbally…filthy, but he only now acted on his words.”
“You could’ve said something. I gave orders that they weren’t supposed to do anything like that.” Zlatan did the directing, pulling them around the shed and towards a large clearing a little way off where earlier Paolo had seen supplies being stockpiled.
“I didn’t see how you’d believe me if I made an accusation against one of your men,” Paolo said after a moment. He grunted as the man made a weak movement, then again as Zlatan abruptly quickened his steps.
The stacks of crates and barrels and sacks had been augmented by some wagons and several tents, with many men busily moving among them. A few of them noticed Zlatan and Paolo’s approach and began alerting the others.
Zlatan rolled his eyes. “It’s easy enough for me to tell when you’re lying. Anyway, I think you’re smarter than to try and make a false accusation, with what you and your family’d be risking.”
Then they were at the edge of the clearing. They stopped there and Zlatan unceremoniously dropped the arm he was holding; the man’s weight pulled the other arm out of Paolo’s hands. Paolo saw Materazzi, another of Zlatan’s lieutenants, come forward and Zlatan and he had a word before he disappeared into the crowd, leaving Zlatan standing over the disobedient guard. The man was beginning to rouse, twisting and moaning, but when Zlatan cleared his throat, all eyes went to him.
“So I told everyone that they’re to treat any guests I host better than their own parents, since God knows who the hell spawned some of you,” Zlatan started, pitching his voice to carry. He smiled and let a few laughs trickle through the crowd, but there was an edge to that smile and that good humor that made Paolo stand back and most of the men wait silently. “It’s one of those rules you follow if you’re with me. And if you’re with me, and you follow them, I’ll take care of you. If you don’t want to follow them, then you’d better leave. And if you’re with me and you break them?”
By now the man had fully woken and was staring at Zlatan like a rabbit caught in a snare. When Zlatan tossed him his sword-belt, he didn’t lift his hands to catch it but instead let it hit him in the face and then drop, leaving him with a smashed nose. His mouth started to move, but Zlatan was already drawing his sword. The man looked about himself, saw no one coming to his aid, and then looked at his sword. He hissed in a breath and grabbed it, yanking out the blade, and then threw himself forward.
There was the slightest shivering ring as their swords touched. But it was a false cry, almost a tease: Zlatan had spun so the tip of his blade scraped down the length of the other man’s sword as it stabbed harmlessly into the air. Then the man’s body fell one way and his head rolled a different way, and as Paolo turned away from the spurting blood, hand slapped over his mouth, he found himself turning towards Zlatan, who was bending to wipe his sword on the dead man’s clothes.
“That’s what you spared my son?” Paolo blurted out. His voice was so raspy he didn’t recognize it.
Zlatan called to somebody to get rid of the body, then rose and came over to Paolo. He shrugged in seeming indifference, but his eyes were watching Paolo closely. “I don’t think a kid should see that kind of death. Never liked it when I was his age.”
“No one should like it at any age.” Paolo felt sick. Flashes of Milan went through his mind, scenes of stark white faces and great gouts of red against fine marble. He turned away.
“Well, when you’re grown up you don’t get to have somebody else do it for you. Then again, you’re a noble so you do still get that,” Zlatan snapped. He grabbed Paolo by the arm and, when Paolo pulled away without thinking, shook him so hard that Paolo nearly fell. “I need to talk to you.”
Paolo stumbled, then mastered his feet more by will than by actually regaining his balance. “The doctor—”
“I heard what he said. You’ll get to go back when he comes back, and I’ll even stand guard myself for it. But till then you should show a little more appreciation for just now.”
As Zlatan dragged them towards the inn, two men passed them with a large sackcloth bundle slung between them. Then a third man came after them, holding a smaller sackcloth package in his arms, and Paolo flinched from his dawning comprehension. But it was the truth, and there was truth also in Zlatan’s words, and if Paolo was to get his family to safety then he couldn’t be the one to shrink from that.
He took a breath. It tasted sour. “What do you want?”
Zlatan glanced at him, then dropped Paolo’s arm and slowed a little. He looked at Paolo again, longer and calmer. That wolf’s-grin, all teeth and no good cheer, threatened to appear. He lifted his hand and wiped something off Paolo’s jaw: blood. Then he did smile, and shook his head a few times as well. “Like I said, easy to tell when you mean something. You think I’m a little nicer than bastards like Gian there one time, I should be like that all the time to everybody? Filthy, you called him. Like you know what filth is.” He snorted and looked away. “We’ll talk about it when we’re inside.”
* * *
When they had first arrived, Paolo hadn’t had more than a moment inside the main room, but the inn had seemed reasonably ordered and tidy, given its small size and location away from the major trading routes. He hadn’t expected it to be up to the standards of a Milanese palazzo and had simply been looking forward to an actual mattress after days of sleeping on the ground or in wagon-beds. But while the rooms were small and supplied with solid but plain furniture, they were astonishingly clean: the wood shone as white as the day it’d been hewn and the little panes of glass in the windows sparkled like diamonds. When Paolo sat down on the bed, he was immediately surrounded by a thick, grassy aroma of fresh hay and sweet herbs. The sheets were rough wool but spotless, smelling faintly of water and soap.
“No, I don’t want any of that. I just want something to eat,” Zlatan said. He was still in the doorway, apparently talking to a servant. A moment later he turned with an exasperated sigh exploding from his lips. “God’s balls. Who gives a shit where the meat comes from, long as it tastes fine?”
From the hall came a frightened squeak of a reply and then the sound of feet rapidly shuffling away. Whatever he’d threatened the staff with must have been blood-curdling, since during their walk through the inn Paolo hadn’t seen anyone but the innkeeper, but had glimpsed plenty of skirts hastily whipping round corners. “They’re just trying to keep you happy,” he murmured, absently rubbing his hand over his knee. “You’re probably the most important guest they’ve had this year and those usually want the best.”
“Anybody with brains would ask what I think’s best before starting things.” Zlatan’s heel caught the door and sent it roughly into its frame. He walked over to the window to look outside, then restlessly moved about the room, stopping here and peering there but never for more than a moment. “Huh. Well, this place is a lot cleaner, at least. Your wife probably can come inside for whatever Senderos wants to do. God, when I hit the bed in the room they wanted her to use, you should’ve seen the fleas jump.”
Paolo flinched from the image, but was admittedly still puzzled by Zlatan’s fixation with that sort of detail, and not only because Zlatan’s presumptive background usually inured people to the presence of pests like fleas. In Milan he’d been accustomed to clean households, but in this imperfect world no one expected to be fully rid of vermin. And no one risked the consequences of the sin of vanity by bathing daily, though it actually seemed as if Zlatan did that for other reasons.
“The people around here talk different, but it’s still Italian,” Zlatan was saying. “They keep asking if I’m here to conduct a levy for the Sforzas, but they look happier when I tell them I’m not.”
“Milan conquered all these lands over a hundred years ago, but for years now Uri’s been coveting them.” With a shake, Paolo returned his attention to the present. It didn’t seem as if those were anything but minor eccentricities, and they certainly didn’t shed much light on Zlatan’s personality, so there was no point in dwelling on their oddity. “We’ve—they’ve already fought a war over Ticino—this area—about fifty years ago, and likely there’ll be another within my lifetime.”
Zlatan paused at the far wall, apparently interested in a detail of some rather fine woodwork that decorated the window. “Uri?”
“It’s a canton of the Swiss Confederacy.” Paolo paused, unsure exactly how much or little Zlatan knew, and also of how much Zlatan was willing to be told. “A canton is similar to an Italian state. Uri’s directly north of here.”
“I know where it is,” Zlatan said, sounding a little sharp. He abruptly pushed away from the window and resumed his aimless but energetic perusal of the room. “So Milan must have won back then.”
It would have been easier if Paolo could’ve taken Zlatan’s earlier suggestion at face-value, but somehow he doubted Zlatan wouldn’t ruffle at an inquiry on just what schooling he lacked. He made a note to himself that geography didn’t seem to be too much of an issue and attempted to speak more carefully. “Uri actually pushed down quite far, and they still hold the Leventina valley, but Milan managed to regain the rest of Ticino. But the Sforzas have been preoccupied with infighting within Milan, and when they haven’t they’ve been more concerned with Florence, the Papal States and Naples than here. These people barely know anything about Milan, so Uri’s more influential.”
“Bunch of mountains there, so I hear. It’s not bad going between here and Milan—be easy enough to get an army here fast, whether people in Ticino like it or not.” Zlatan swerved around a chair, then angled so he’d pass by the bed. He seemed to be talking to himself more than to Paolo. “Uri’s too far. Grisons doesn’t seem to care too much either way about Milan, but you can get down from the mountains into the Venetian Republic without having to go through Milanese lands. Fucking Venetians probably have the whole border lined with customs collectors, though.”
“Are we moving already? The doctor says that Adriana shouldn’t be moved for at least a week,” Paolo said, growing alarmed.
By then Zlatan was standing right in front of him. He seemed about to move on, but abruptly turned. His arm blurred and Paolo jerked back, then stabbed his fingers into the mattress as Zlatan’s hand clamped around his shoulder. The other man leaned hard on that as he bent over, eyes flashing with irritation. “Those bodies we stuffed your clothes on weren’t all that close in size, you know. From what I hear the Sforzas still aren’t sure they got everybody and they’ve got search parties roaming the countryside.”
“I know, but at the moment my wife’s health is just as much a threat to her as they are,” Paolo replied. His voice was too sharp and he could see Zlatan’s jaw tightening as well as feel the pressure on his shoulder increase. “She needs a few days. If it’s absolutely necessary that we move her, then at least don’t make her go into the Alps yet. The cold and the thin air might be too much of a strain.”
“Well, then where do you think we should go? Maybe in a week she’s better, but then the Sforzas might have caught up and great, then she can walk out to get cut in half instead of being carried out.” Zlatan pulled his hand from Paolo’s shoulder so roughly that the motion tipped Paolo forward. Before Paolo could lean back, Zlatan had moved his fingers to curl around Paolo’s jaw, thumb pressing hard up into the underside of Paolo’s chin. “A few days here, fine, these people aren’t going to volunteer to help the Sforzas but then where?”
Paolo stared at him, at first uncertain as to whether Zlatan actually wanted a reply and then…and then he didn’t speak because he didn’t have any answers readily springing to mind. But the grip on his jaw closed to the point of acute pain; he started to lift a protesting hand before he recalled himself, and instead fisted that hand in the sheets. “I don’t know where you’d consider going.”
“How about you first tell me where you think the Sforzas can’t reach and then I decide on that?” Zlatan snapped. He pulled Paolo forward, looking hard into Paolo’s eyes, before abruptly shoving Paolo away. A disgusted snort came from him as he spun around and went to the other end of the bed. “Christ, have you even thought about that? You’re so fucking worried about your family and you don’t know where you need to go? Do you really want to live?”
“I want to live badly enough to let you abuse me without a word of protest,” Paolo retorted. Then he flinched and closed his eyes, immediately regretting the loss of temper. He’d lifted a hand to his aching jaw but aside from that he didn’t move, waiting anxiously for Zlatan’s reaction.
But no sound came from that direction, and as the silence stretched on so did Paolo’s nerves, till they hummed with so much tension that he couldn’t stand it. He opened his eyes, then turned his head.
Zlatan was looking back, with some traces of surprise in his face. But those quickly vanished in favor of an aggravation so barely under control that it was amazing he didn’t shake. Then that slowly disappeared as well, and Zlatan suddenly rocked back on his heel with a curt bark of laughter. “I pet you on the cheek a few times, slapped you that one time. I don’t even talk about your wife unless you bring her up. I like seeing you flinch—it lets me know you’re too busy worrying about what I’ll do to come up with a good lie. You could’ve taken a seat on a chair if you wanted, but you went to the bed. I didn’t ask for that.”
“You’re not in a position where you should have to ask for things,” Paolo said, stung pride spitting the words from his mouth. He looked away and pressed his fingers to the side of his jaw, then pushed them higher onto his cheek that was warming. Then he tried to reproach himself, since of all the things that were at the forefront of his mind, embarrassment had the least right to be there. And anyway, it wasn’t even needed—it was a strange situation and Zlatan was a strange person, and Paolo had no idea what to expect. “Your own men assume you’re already lying with me.”
A sharp intake of breath made Paolo look up, and he found Zlatan turning away as if that had surprised him. The other man rubbed at the side of his nose, mumbling into his hand, before abruptly throwing back his head. He sent an annoyed glance heavenward as he started towards the door. “It’s like the world’s full of idiots who think too much of too little. God, I grew out of it…what are you still sitting there for? The doctor should be back soon and your wife is still in a fucking shed. Sometimes I really wonder how the hell people like you work.”
After a moment of confusion, Paolo belatedly got to his feet and followed the other man. He kept his hands clenched to keep from striking Zlatan, but if he was honest with himself, he didn’t know if his anger was because of his wife and children or because of his own continuing misunderstanding of the man. “I’ve seen the worst happen to the rest of my family, and I’m still worried about saving Adriana and my sons, so now I naturally assume the worst.”
“You do that in a funny way,” Zlatan remarked.
The lightness of his tone was grating on Paolo’s already raw nerves. “Well, I don’t know how I’m supposed to be doing it. I’ve never had to even—consider—I never even imagined almost my whole family would be slaughtered.”
Zlatan looked at him, eyebrows a little lifted. He seemed about to say something, but then swerved around the corner. A few moments later Materazzi sidled up with something about the village elders and the ensuing discussion lasted all the way to the shed. After Materazzi had left, Paolo did notice that Zlatan still refrained from his usual teasing, but he was too preoccupied with Adriana to give it any thought. He simply was grateful.
* * *
“It’s what I thought,” Philippe said. He lifted his hands out of the bowl of water and shook off the excess, then wiped off the rest with a rag. “It’s not too serious—I mean, the cause. She’s lacking in certain elements so her humors aren’t balanced, but it’s easy to fix that by feeding her these foods—I’ll give you a list. It probably happened late in the pregnancy and was aggravated because she’s been nursing and had to travel, so I’d like for her to take some medicines as well to help her rebuild her strength.”
“You sound as certain as if you had a degree or a license,” Paolo remarked, a bit startled by the other man’s sudden briskness.
Philippe’s demeanor promptly folded beneath a discomfited flush. He ducked his head and rounded his shoulders, pulling the rag nervously between his fingers. “Well, I’ve been around a few real doctors so I know how they talk. It seems to help with most people.”
“I’m more relieved that you aren’t advising we bleed her. I’ve never approved of that and usually I find its greatest proponents are the same people who consider a hanging better fun than a public parade.” After he’d finished washing his own hands, Paolo went back to the bed and related Philippe’s words to Adriana.
Against the white sheets she looked even more wan than she had in the shed, but she smiled when she heard the verdict. The squeeze of her hand around Paolo’s fingers paradoxically seemed to loosen one of the iron bands that perpetually cinched Paolo’s chest these days.
“I’m sorry you had to endure that, but hopefully the knowledge gained will be worth it,” Paolo said.
Adriana’s smile slipped a little as she glanced at their joined hands. Her hair, a lank brittle brown now, rippled as she moved her shoulder. “It wasn’t painful at all, Paolo. As for the indignity, well, I thought he managed it very respectfully. Though if to you it was—”
“I’m hardly concerned with pride right now.” Paolo bent towards her, but a soft cry from the other side of the room made them both start.
He looked over at the cradle, then got up and retrieved Daniel from it. The swaddling around his legs felt dry, and Philippe had come back with a local woman willing to do a little nursing so Daniel shouldn’t have been hungry, but he still fussed. In the end Paolo laid him besides Adriana, then stood to go see if he could have their meals sent up to the room.
Somehow he’d forgotten Christian: his son had been sitting quietly in a chair, still obeying Paolo’s hissed order on their first night fleeing Milan to not speak in front of strangers, but at some point he’d gotten down to stand by the table, clutching the leg as he peered around it at Philippe. Grave-faced, the young man had knelt down before Christian and was doing something with his fingers, squeezing them together. Then he flicked them apart, and between them was a little wooden top.
Christian started to laugh, but then noticed Paolo and sobered up with a start. “Sorry, father.”
“No, it’s all right.” Paolo bent down and gave Christian a little push on the shoulder. “But remember your manners.”
After another anxious look at him, Christian gingerly took the top from Philippe and made a wavery bow. “Thank you, sir.”
“You’re very welcome,” Philippe said. He spoke as solemnly as Christian did, without a trace of the amusement adults usually affected—and which, Christian had complained often to his parents, was mean of them—but the furrows in his brow grew slightly shallower.
A sudden knock at the door startled all three of them. Paolo jerked up, then looked back at his son, but Christian had already fled across the room to Adriana. Philippe had sprang off one knee and now he paused, looking curiously at Paolo, before he more slowly finished standing.
“Done yet?” Zlatan called from the hall.
After a moment, Paolo gestured for Philippe to precede him. He looked at Adriana before following; she met his eyes, then quickly bent her head to Christian, her arm going round his slight shoulders.
The moment they were in the corridor, Zlatan was interrogating Philippe as to his diagnosis with a speed and forcefulness that had Philippe involuntarily backing into the wall. But there was an intelligence to it: at points Zlatan was picking out conclusions, such as the medicines requiring access to a pharmacy the village wasn’t large enough to possess, that Philippe himself didn’t seem to have quite considered yet.
“There’ll be a great fair going on, and it’s only a day’s journey away. I go to it every year to restock and if I was free I’d already be on my way,” Philippe said, blinking.
Zlatan raised his brows. “I thought you said you knew what was going on. Why do you want to stay?”
Philippe glanced at Paolo as if he expected an interruption, and when Paolo remained silent he turned hesitatingly back to Zlatan. “Diseases don’t just…stay the same as when you see them on the first day. You heal, so—the next day you’re different, and sometimes the medicine needs to be adjusted for that.”
“So you say,” Zlatan muttered, like he didn’t quite believe it. He stared at an increasingly fidgety Philippe for several seconds. “The blacksmith says you were having a pike-head mended. I took a look and it’s pretty damn big.”
“I—well, I do the doctoring in the winter. In the summer I’m a pike-man.” The words came reluctantly from Philippe, and the way he ducked his head then had little to do with modesty. Under further staring from Zlatan he mumbled a list of campaigns in which he’d taken part, which included a fair number of notable battles for one so young.
Even Zlatan seemed grudgingly impressed, at least at first. Once or twice during the recital he started to grin and say something that indicated he’d been at a particular site as well, but the faint look of approval on his face gradually died away as he continued to listen. When Philippe finished, Zlatan took a step back as if leaving, then looked sharply at the other man. “So why aren’t you with a company now?”
The quickness and accuracy of his guess took Philippe off-guard. He stammered a bit, then grimaced and straightened his shoulders. It required obvious effort on his part, but he lifted his head and looked Zlatan in the eye, and answered with a soft but steady voice. “The brother of the commander caught malaria. I did what I could, and told them the final decision was going to be up to God, but when the man died the commander blamed me.”
“Who?” Zlatan asked. He turned back and the set of his shoulders suggested he wasn’t going till Philippe gave up the name. When the other man finally did, Zlatan grinned broadly. “Oh, that bastard. He cheated me at dice once. The next time I see him, I’m going to cut off his balls. Well, if you want pay in both seasons, I’m looking for pike-men and I guess a doctor’s useful, too. Go see Materazzi in the common room—he’s the one smacking his head into the rafters.”
It was on the tip of Paolo’s tongue to ask if Philippe didn’t take the offer, would he still be allowed to treat Adriana, but Zlatan was signaling for Paolo to step over. All Paolo could do was nervously watch Philippe, who glanced questioningly at him again before finally assenting in a mutter.
He stiffened when Zlatan clapped him on the shoulder, then lingered a little before finally walking down the hall. Even then Paolo had the impression Senderos was working hard not to peek over his shoulder.
Well, he had good reason to be curious, considering how odd things must seem to him. Paolo desultorily debated the merits of trying to give the poor youth any sort of explanation as he followed Zlatan. “Zlatan, my family hasn’t eaten—”
“It’s coming. Actually, it’s…” Zlatan turned, and after a moment so did Paolo.
They watched a servant-girl rush up to the door to Adriana’s room. She was heavily burdened with trays of covered dishes and followed at a more sedate pace by Larsson, who carried more trays with considerably more grace. A delicious hot aroma drifted towards them, then died away as Larsson and the girl entered the room. Another overburdened servant stepped into the hall further down, then began skittishly following Zlatan and Paolo.
“Never mind,” Zlatan said. He resumed walking. “You’re staying in my room. I don’t really care who the men think I’m fucking as long as they follow the rules, and after this afternoon I don’t think that’ll be a problem for a while.”
* * *
After the evening meal and a second, somewhat more sedate discussion of possible destinations, Zlatan went to go check on what his men were doing and Paolo took the opportunity to beg a last moment with his family before turning in for the night. When he went into the room, he was surprised to find Senderos back there along with Larsson.
Philippe explained he’d been adjusting Adriana’s meal and had prepared a tonic for her to take as well, but he stayed much longer than those tasks required, gravely teaching Christian how to do tricks with the wooden top. Once or twice he started to engage Paolo and Adriana in conversation, rather awkwardly trying to ask about who they were and where they were from, but then Larsson tended to begin honing a dagger and that quickly ended any talk. Eventually Senderos and Christian drifted off a few feet to play gently with Daniel in the cradle and that at least gave Paolo and Adriana some privacy.
“I feel a little better. I think—I wish I had a mirror,” Adriana said. She was propped up with a few pillows and she attempted to push herself up them, only to turn so white that Paolo started to reach for her. She had the strength to bat away her hand, but still dropped back with worrying speed. “Well, I did. And remarkably enough, that tonic wasn’t terribly nauseating to drink.”
“You’ve gotten a little color back.” Paolo picked up the sheet and drew it higher up her body, then smoothed out its folds. He glanced away as Christian suddenly exclaimed, but the boy’s face was lit up with delight, not fear. The warm affection that flooded through Paolo at the sight was laced through with a brutally sharp awareness of how fragile a moment it was.
He turned away, absently plucking balls of lint from the wool blanket, before looking back at Adriana. She was still watching Senderos, a bitter smile on her face, and when she noticed Paolo’s attention, she dropped her eyes and tilted her head so her hair slipped across her cheek. “I think he’s already half in love with our children, Paolo.”
“He’s hired on, but as a doctor and a mercenary.” A glance at Larsson seemed to show the other man serenely busy mending some bit of tack, but Paolo lowered his voice anyway. He shifted his seat nearer to Adriana. “He’s curious, too, and he doesn’t miss a great deal. But I think Zlatan’s noticed that as well, and I’m not entirely sure what the intentions there are.”
“I told him our Christian names and Henrik didn’t intervene, but I wasn’t thinking of chancing anything else,” Adriana said. Her lips thinned and she restlessly moved her hand to and fro over the sheets. “I wish I were well enough to see to my own children. Christian asks questions when you’re not with us, and sometimes loud enough for the guards to hear. And Henrik makes me nervous.”
He unnerved Paolo as well, but he was a vast improvement over most of the men under Zlatan’s command. And simply finding himself thinking kindly of such meager compromises made Paolo restless himself, and wishing impossible things. He looked down at the bed, telling himself Adriana had just reminded him of another reason why he needed to control his moods. His children had enough to deal with without adding their father’s misery to it. “I’m sorry. You’re not well and shouldn’t be taking this all on yourself.”
“I’m taking hardly anything.” The edge in Adriana’s tone seemed to surprise her as well as Paolo. She looked quickly at the wall, then bowed her head. Her shoulders lifted and dropped with a deep breath before she raised her eyes to Paolo’s face. “What is going on? What’s happening when he takes you away?”
Paolo grimaced before he could help himself. He looked at the others again, but Larsson still seemed completely taken up by his own work and Senderos was telling Christian something about mountain goats. “It’s nothing. You’ve been through enough already, Adriana—I don’t think worrying about that will aid your recovery.”
“It will if it tells me why this is a conversation where my husband can’t look at me,” Adriana said, low and sharp. She hardly ever spoke that way, and her hands were trembling a little against the sheets, but when Paolo looked at her, her regard of him was steady. “What are you doing? Why is he helping us get away?”
“I’m doing what I have to in order to keep us safe. Adriana, Senderos said that the strain on you is what’s caused your condition. I want you to get well before anything else. That’s what matters right now,” Paolo replied. His own tone had become a little curt, though he tried hard to soften it. He glanced again at Christian.
Adriana sighed and the harshness of the sound wasn’t entirely due to her illness. “Philippe talked to me and you watched him, and then you told me the same thing just to be sure. I know what he said about my condition and Paolo, I apologize for nagging but I can’t help worrying about you. The worst part of being ill is having to lie still and not know what’s happening.”
“I’m fine.” Paolo watched Christian peek over the cradle’s edge, then duck as Daniel gurgled happily. A sour taste spread over his mouth and for a moment he let it lie there. But then Christian glanced over and Paolo looked away, swallowing. He nearly turned back to Adriana before he changed his mind and instead stared at the door.
“You’re not.” Two fingers pressed into the back of Paolo’s hand, but when he didn’t turn his head, Adriana withdrew them. Her voice dropped to a whisper so angry it was almost a hiss. “I know when you’re not and since I love you, it matters a great deal to me how you are. Pretending to be otherwise doesn’t spare me any grief.”
“I don’t see why you want so desperately to talk of ill things. Matters are bad enough and you just told me that Christian’s begun to notice our moods,” Paolo muttered. He rubbed at the back of his hand, wishing Adriana hadn’t bothered and that he could pull her fingers back to him.
Adriana put her hand down against the mattress so hard that it shook and the blankets fluttered; the ropes beneath it creaked and across the room, Larsson looked up. As she and Paolo hastily pretended to be rearranging the pillows behind her, two spots of red started to burn in her cheeks. “I told you that because I’m worried about what he’s seeing and hearing might do to him. Don’t you start using him as—as—”
“He’s my son. I would never—“ Paolo bit down on the rest and stopped what he was doing to press his palms against the mattress. He took a deep breath, briefly closing his eyes.
After another breath, Paolo slowly turned around. “Yes?”
Christian stood behind the cradle, his hands braced on the edge, their knuckles whitened against his tan. For a moment he stared at them with eyes so dark and wide that Paolo feared the boy had overheard, but then Christian gave an uncertain shrug. “Nothing. Sorry.”
“It’s all right,” Paolo said. Though it wasn’t, and he hadn’t wanted so strongly for the earth to engulf him since very early in his youth.
When he turned back to her, Adriana had her hand pressed over her mouth and her eyes squeezed shut. She slowly dragged her fingers over her cheek, then up to her forehead as if feeling for fever. Then she pulled them away and opened her eyes; the shadows beneath them were suddenly the most prominent feature of her face. “I went too far. I’m sorry.” Her voice was flat and small. “But I sit here and…and I can hear sometimes. Christian doesn’t understand all the words but I do.”
“You wouldn’t have gone without my push. I’d blame the situation but I should have done better, and no matter to that.” Paolo pushed one hand through his hair, then dug his fingertips into the knot of nerves aching at the base of his neck. He looked at Adriana’s hand because he couldn’t yet bring himself to look at her face. “I’ve lost everyone else, Adriana. I can’t lose you or our sons. I won’t. Please, just trust in that.”
“They’d become my family as well,” she said after a moment. Her fingers curled, then straightened and spread against the blankets. “When we married I took my vows to share all that’s yours, the good and the horrible. I still take those words seriously, and I might not be able to get out of this bed but I can listen. I saw what you saw in Milan.”
Paolo looked up, but didn’t see her face. Nor was he in a Swiss inn—he jerked away, then stared ahead of himself till he’d willed the details of the door to come into focus. Then he concentrated on those, on every mundane whorl and old scratch in the wood. “I know, but I can’t reasonably ask you to bear that.”
“It’s not…” Although she spoke quietly, those two words seemed to explode from her mouth. Then she fell silent, and for so long that Paolo finally looked back at her. Adriana was gazing at the door as well, frustration sitting on her features with startling ease, but then she turned her eyes on Paolo. An opaqueness slid across them like a shutter, then withdrew so she simply looked tired. “You’re my husband,” she said. “You know that.”
“I’m grateful for it every day of my life,” he said. He leaned towards her, then dropped his head a little short of her cheek.
After a moment, Adriana turned her head so their lips brushed. Her hand slipped over his own and he lowered his head further to rest it on her shoulder. It was a selfish gesture and he knew exactly how, but he was too exhausted and couldn’t keep himself from taking what he needed. The way she not only allowed it but also welcomed it, running her thumb across the back of his hand, only deepened the painful grip guilt had on him, but he didn’t lift his head.
“So this is where you got to.”
Somehow Paolo had missed the noise of the opening door, for when he lifted his head Zlatan was leaning in the doorway. But the man was addressing Senderos, who rose in such a hurry that his knee knocked lightly against Christian. He started to bend down, looking apologetic, but Christian flinched away.
“Nico went and got into a brawl, and he’s got a cut on his head. He’s in the courtyard,” Zlatan said, voice bland but eyes roving the room. “After that, go see Materazzi about where you’re sleeping.”
As Senderos reluctantly walked towards the door, Paolo got up and took Christian into his arms, then bent down to pull the cradle over to the bed as well. It was quite late, he’d suddenly realized, and long past time for the two boys to sleep.
He was still tucking Christian in beside Adriana when Zlatan cleared his throat. Paolo stiffened and Adriana drew in a breath, her hand closing over his wrist. She looked into his face, desperate questions mixing with the fear in her eyes; he had to drop his gaze and a moment later he felt her hand lift. “I sleep in his room,” Paolo reluctantly told her. “I don’t know—”
“’Night, Henke,” Zlatan pointedly said.
Paolo kissed the top of Christian’s head and brushed his hand over Daniel’s, then pressed his lips to Adriana’s cheek. A wavering noise passed through her mouth, almost shaped into words, but before she had another chance he kissed her lips. Then he said good night—Adriana nodded, not looking at him—and turned to follow Zlatan into the hall.
* * *
The darkness that met Paolo’s eyes disoriented him so he froze in place, his hands twisting in something soft and only his harsh, gasping breath disturbing the silence. He stared around himself, taking longer to recognize his surroundings than his eyes needed to adjust to the dim light, but knowing where he really was didn’t bring much relief.
The lack of sleep the preceding nights must have suddenly caught up with him, since the last waking memory he had was of lying down on the bed. He absently felt about himself, still trying to calm his nerves, then frowned as some strangeness about the bed repeatedly intruded into his thoughts. No…no, Adriana and their children were in the other room, but—the rest of the bed was cold, and the blankets and mattress still springy as if they’d not been laid upon. When Paolo had fallen asleep Zlatan had still been up, but now it was very late at night.
Paolo looked warily about the room, but the shadowy outlines of the furnishings were uninterrupted by any human form. The man might have stepped out, and then there was the question of the lock on the door. His men were encamped all about and probably some were still up, having found the local beer to their liking, but maybe not in the hallway. But Larsson…Paolo twisted around in the bed, trying to gauge the odds, and something by the window moved.
He started, exclaiming, and his legs tangled in the sheets so he had to grab at the mattress to steady himself. The thing snorted, then slid over so the starlight coming through the unshuttered window fell on it.
Zlatan had been standing to the left of the sill, where it seemed darkest because the most light came in directly next to it. The way he’d turned seemed to indicate he had been looking outside before Paolo had woken, but at what wasn’t clear: Paolo had gazed out the window before going to bed and had noted that the view was largely blocked by a neighboring building.
“Oh, finally,” he said. Tiredness but not drowsiness colored his voice, so he hadn’t gone to sleep yet. “You were getting loud.”
“Was I?” Paolo reached down and pulled at the blankets till he could stretch out his legs. “I’m sorry.”
“Who’s Cesare?” Zlatan asked.
The blankets slipped out of Paolo’s suddenly nerveless fingers. He ducked his head as well, then realized Zlatan could probably make out about as much detail of his face as he could of the other man’s. A small godsend. “My father.”
He pulled up the sheets again and began to lie down, but Zlatan moved again. He scratched at the side of his head, looking at Paolo. “You kept telling him he had to go, to run somewhere. I thought you were going to start crying, actually.”
That explained the soreness Paolo felt about his eyes, but he wasn’t grateful for the information. In fact his jaw began to hurt as well and after a moment he understood that that was because he was clenching his teeth again. But of course letting Zlatan know he’d touched a nerve would only invite more of the same, so Paolo made himself relax. He rolled over so his back was to the other man and bent his head so it was nearly covered by the sheets, hoping that Zlatan would assume he’d gone back to sleep.
“You called your father by his Christian name?”
Paolo held his breath till he’d counted to ten, then slowly let it out. “When I wanted to talk about a serious matter, as a man to a man and not a son to a father.”
“You mean when he wouldn’t listen to you,” Zlatan said, sounding amused.
“You never knew him and I don’t intend on telling you about him, so save your judgments for when they’d have value,” Paolo snapped.
A bootheel thudded hard into the floor and Paolo winced, pulling his head down further and raising his arms. Then he stilled, bracing himself; that hadn’t worked as a child to keep the thunder away and it wouldn’t work now, against a different kind of rumbling threat.
But Zlatan never came any further, and in fact he walked back to the window after a long, tense moment. “He should have. You know, I saw what happened to him—the end of it, anyway.”
“I didn’t,” Paolo said raggedly. He squeezed his eyes shut, but still couldn’t bring his breathing under control so he reached out till he could gouge his nails into the wall.
“Do you want to know about it?” Zlatan asked the question in a strangely soft voice, devoid of any mockery.
Not that that mattered much to Paolo. He hissed between his teeth so he wouldn’t get out of bed and do anything foolish. “No. I dreamed—if you have to know, I was dreaming about when they took him away and that was unpleasant enough without adding to it.”
“Well, if you knew the end maybe you would have just one dream about it, instead of a couple different ones,” Zlatan muttered. He didn’t elaborate, and when Paolo turned to look at him, he’d slouched against the side of the window and was staring out of it, towards the northeast.
With an exhausting effort, Paolo refrained from replying. Instead he twisted back around and put his head on the pillow, and silently recited Latin conjugations till he dropped off again. It was a light, uneasy slumber, but at least it held no more dreams.
* * *
In the morning the other side of the bed was still untouched, but Zlatan gave every appearance of having had a full night of Morpheus’ favors, so Paolo assumed he’d slept at some point. He himself woke with a stiff neck and a slow, drifting mind that didn’t shake off its lassitude over breakfast, and so he tried to speak as little as necessary. Fortunately Zlatan was almost immediately summoned away to speak with the local council about signing terms for any locals he recruited, and the guard he left on Paolo this time was as taciturn as the dead one had been voluble.
The man led Paolo back to Adriana’s room, then stopped at the door to talk with Larsson, who was on his way out. When it didn’t seem as if they’d object, Paolo cautiously slipped past them into the room.
Christian was still asleep, his small body sprawled carelessly over Adriana’s knees so one fist dangled over the edge. Paolo carefully moved it onto the mattress before he sat down and leaned over to kiss Adriana good-morning.
“The wet-nurse has already been in, and we’ve already eaten but this one—” she nodded at Christian, tangling her fingers in his curls “—woke up with nightmares last night. He’s only just fallen asleep.”
At that Paolo took a closer look, but Christian’s face was smooth and peacefully composed. He didn’t stir when Paolo touched his round cheek, or when Paolo shifted him to lie between Adriana and the wall so Paolo could sit closer to Adriana. Larsson had left and the new guard was letting in someone else: Senderos.
For a few seconds Philippe dithered between the bed and a nearby chair, then settled for standing by the bed. He greeted them rather distractedly, but settled down a little once they’d begun to discuss the changes in Adriana’s condition. When she told him how much better she felt, he even relaxed enough for a smile, his forehead momentarily as clear as it should’ve been at his age. “That’s good. So it’s what I thought for sure.”
“Then in a week she’ll be fine?” Paolo asked.
“If you rest—” Philippe’s eyes flicked uncertainly between Paolo and Adriana “—and continue eating correctly and taking the medicines, you’ll gradually recover. Maybe in a week. It’ll be a few more days before I could guess how long. It’d be faster if I had—if somebody brings back what I need from the trading fair.”
Paolo hadn’t had any opportunity to ask Zlatan about that yet, and to be honest he’d actually forgotten that that had been mentioned. He started to speak, but Adriana was quicker. “Trading fair?”
“There’s one going on in the next town. If I could get a couple things from it I could make stronger medicine. You’ll get well without that, but it’d be better if you could have it,” Philippe said. He looked at his hands. “It’s a day away. I already asked Zlatan if I could take leave and go, but he’s refused. He says you wouldn’t want it, that you’re in no hurry and you don’t want to cause a fuss.”
Adriana’s eyes flickered and the skin around her mouth tightened. She looked at Paolo, who felt likewise but could hardly correct Philippe’s mistaken impression about the level of concern he had for Adriana, lest that pique the man’s interest in their relationship to Zlatan even more. All he could do was silently damn Zlatan again for his meddling.
“Is there anyone else you could send?” Philippe hesitated, then lowered his voice. “Do you…have any personal servants with you who could go?”
No matter how polite he was about it, Philippe couldn’t disguise his bewilderment. He had to have guessed something of their background by now; as circumspect as they tried to be, neither Paolo nor Adriana could be anything but the nobles they’d been born as. And nobles did not allow their families to travel along with only lowborn mercenaries as a retinue.
“No,” Paolo finally said. “You say that it’s not essential that my wife have this other medicine?”
Philippe looked from Paolo to Adriana, then again at his hands. He rubbed his thumb down his wrist so Paolo’s eyes were drawn to a thick white scar running across the back of it. “Well, it—”
The guard interrupted, asking tonelessly how much longer Philippe was going to need. He started to remind Philippe that his attendance was needed somewhere, but Philippe stopped him before Paolo heard for what, saying that he was almost done but that he needed a word with the husband. At that Paolo glanced apologetically at Adriana.
She took it with a forgiving smile, but her gaze strayed from his to the wall, and the set of her jaw hardened. As Paolo got up, Christian stirred and Adriana absently stroked his head, but she continued to stare at the wall with furrowed brows for a few more seconds. Then she turned to Christian, and while her eyes lit with affection the moment they came to rest on the boy, just before that they had been filled with the same frustration as the previous day.
After taking Paolo over to the door, Philippe seemed even more nervous and didn’t look at Paolo at all, but instead strapped and unstrapped the wrist-guard on his left arm. “Is it a question of money? Because the merchants at the fair know me, and I can—”
“No, it’s not.” Paolo paused, watching the guard out of the corner of his eye. They were across the room, but Zlatan at least frequently displayed an exceptional sense of hearing and the dead guard aside, his men tended to be of good quality. “I do wish to avoid any trouble. My family and I don’t want to attract any attention.”
Philippe looked up, brows slightly raised. “There are men coming in from all over the area to try and get a place in Zlatan’s group, once the elders have negotiated the contract. He’s had the word spread quite far.”
That surprised Paolo, given Zlatan’s complaints about keeping out of sight of the Sforzas. Surprised and caused him some chagrin, since that was exactly the sort of detail for which he should have been watching. Perhaps he wasn’t told much, but he did have eyes and ears and now that he thought about it, he’d overheard Zlatan giving enough orders to have guessed that himself. “Zlatan’s aims and those of me and my family aren’t the same.”
“Can you ask him to let me go?” Philippe said. He watched Paolo very closely, his curiosity briefly overcoming the worry in his eyes.
Paolo needed a moment to loosen his throat. “I’m going to, but as he’s already told you no, I don’t think he’ll change his mind.”
As calmly as he’d said them, the words still carried too many implications for Philippe to miss. The other man’s brows jumped a little and he started to reply, but stopped himself. Then he ducked his head, pulling at his nose and rubbing at his chin as he spoke. “People are under the impression he’s working for you, or that you’re at least overseeing him for somebody else. But…I don’t want to cause trouble…”
“Then please concern yourself with what’s under your control, and don’t worry about what’s under others,” Paolo said. He did so more sharply than he’d meant and so he grimaced afterward. He tried to soften his expression. “We’re very grateful already for what you’ve done for us. I can’t offer much in the way of payment anyway, so I wouldn’t like to give you any problems in return.”
“Your wife’s my patient, and I just try to see after those as best as I can. I really think it’d be worth it to send somebody to the fair.” Philippe flinched at his own strengthening tone, but didn’t drop his gaze. “Any problems about that, I just think are part of getting her the treatment she needs.”
Paolo glanced at Adriana, who was talking quietly to Christian. Then to the guard, who’d stopped whittling to stare quite pointedly at him and Senderos—Paolo looked away at the window, then back at Philippe. He gave the young man a smile he meant, but put as much coldness as he could into his voice. “Thank you, but you’ve already rendered us your services, and I think you now have to render your allegiances to Zlatan, don’t you?”
The anxiety abruptly vanished from Philippe’s eyes. He didn’t straighten his stooped shoulders or shake off his retiring air, but he showed something of what allowed him to ply the war-trade during the summer months, and then turn to healing at other times. “He pays for my pike, but not much else. I…please tell me if you change your mind.”
Then Philippe raised his voice to take his leave, and did so with such quickness that he must have felt he’d overstepped himself. Paolo wished dearly that he could tell the man otherwise, but had to content himself with merely bidding Senderos good day.
“I’m a little surprised he still has to hire himself out as a soldier,” Adriana said when Paolo had returned to her side. “It wouldn’t be difficult for him to establish himself as a doctor, even if he doesn’t have any official certification of his skills.”
“I assume he has his reasons, and anyway we know next to nothing about his history.” Paolo accepted a hug from Christian that suddenly turned tight enough to make breathing difficult. He gently loosened his son’s arms and shifted them from his neck, then wrapped his own arm around Christian and pulled him onto his lap.
Adriana pressed her lips together. “I didn’t mean to imply we immediately embrace him. I’m aware that desperation can cast a pleasant light on dangerous things.”
“I didn’t intend to criticize you,” Paolo said, startled. Christian was still a bit drowsy and was beginning to mumble something about his dreams into Paolo’s neck, but Paolo only half-listened because he was staring at Adriana.
Her cheeks flushed and she lowered her gaze. “I may have exaggerated how much rest I got last night to Philippe. Christian woke up, and then I was worrying about you.”
Paolo bit at his lip, hearing the way she hesitated at the end. The ghost of yesterday’s argument rose up between them, and behind it Adriana slowly lifted her eyes to ask silent questions of Paolo that he couldn’t answer.
“And it kept chasing me and I ran home, but I couldn’t get inside. The door was locked,” Christian was saying. He pulled at Paolo’s doublet. “Father, why can’t we just go home? I miss my room.”
“I know. I’m sorry, Christian, but we…we can’t. It’s been damaged and it isn’t safe to live there right now.” To Paolo’s ears his voice sounded a bit thick. He cleared his throat, then swallowed a few times as he pressed his cheek to the top of Christian’s head. It was a poor half-truth, and poorer still was the fact that he was even hoping a mere hug would distract his son, but he couldn’t bring himself to be blunt and instill a fear in Christian that might end up coloring the boy’s whole life.
“I think that’s a bird at the window,” Adriana said. She stretched out a hand and cupped it over Christian’s shoulder, then drew him to her. “Look, did you see? I’ve never seen one like that near our home.”
Christian reluctantly looked, but a bright flash of color did indeed dive past the window and he instantly was captivated. The wondering smile on his face effortlessly bound up all of Paolo’s attention, so that Paolo started when that suddenly moved. Then he bent forward to help Christian off the bed and see him to the window, but while his son watched the bird, Paolo looked at Adriana, at the greyness of her skin and the careworn slant of her thin shoulders, and wondered again that he’d ever considered her anything less than a treasure. But he still couldn’t reply to the pleading in her eyes, and in the end he stopped even meeting them.
* * *
“—up! Wake up!”
The words punched through Paolo’s dizziness, clear and hard-edged. His mind fixed on them, and only then did he realize he was awake and being roughly shaken. Though he must have made a noise, because the shaking stopped. Something left his shoulder and then feeling sparked painfully back to life in it so he grabbed at it, then rolled over.
It was deep into the night again, and across the room he could see that Zlatan had unshuttered the window at some point after Paolo had gone to bed. But Zlatan this time was sitting on the edge of the mattress, his profile lined in silver by the moonlight, with head cocked towards Paolo.
Paolo abruptly realized what had happened and instinctively jerked his head down before he regained his sense. Humiliated by himself or not, he needn’t further degrade himself in front of Zlatan by hiding from the fact.
“Dreams again?” Zlatan asked.
“Yes.” A few days ago Paolo had been longing for a proper bed, but it seemed as if a decent rest didn’t come without a price. He’d not dreamed during the journey here because between the poor shelters and the worry over Adriana, he hadn’t been capable of more than dozing for a few minutes at a time, and now he almost missed that.
Perhaps he’d at least avoided talking this time, for Zlatan didn’t inquire any further before getting up and returning to the window. He took up the same pose as he had the previous night.
Paolo laid back down, but hardly felt like inviting sleep to come again so soon, so he found himself watching the other man. Zlatan’s stance was hardly a comfortable one, but he held it perfectly and seemed in no need of any of the chairs in the room. He still had his sword strapped on and the hilt gleamed in the low light: it was fairly plain, with a simple ball capping the end and a grip of leather strips wound around it, but the cross-bars that formed the hand-guard were modeled at the ends. Though he’d long since noted that, Paolo only now could see that they were meant to be wolf’s heads; Zlatan hadn’t ever stopped moving long enough for a good look before.
The style was odd, striking Paolo as crude at first but then, as the light shifted on the hand-guard, gradually revealing a fluidity that made the heads seem almost alive. Germanic, possibly.
“I heard that even before the Sforzas took over Milan, your family wasn’t in line to inherit the place, but Il Moro sure as hell seems to think you can,” Zlatan suddenly said.
“If you go by blood then we’re ahead of the Duke of Orléans, who should’ve inherited instead of Francesco Sforza.” Paolo turned on his back and stared at the shadowy beams above him.
Zlatan snorted. “If you’re not going by blood, what do you nobles go by? Who’s the most full of piss?”
“There are different degrees of legality to inheritance.” It occurred to Paolo that he was at the edge of a lecture and he accordingly modulated his tone and slowed his speech, listening for any hint that Zlatan was becoming impatient. “If you go by Salic Law, then you only count males for inheritance—a daughter or a wife can’t pass on a title. Which…is what Sforza didn’t do, when he married the last Visconti’s illegitimate daughter and then claimed the duchy.”
“I wasn’t asking about him,” Zlatan muttered. A floorboard creaked and Paolo twisted about, but Zlatan was only pulling off his sword-belt. Once he’d removed it, he let the tip of the scabbard rest on the floor but retained hold of the hilt.
“My line’s also descended from a bastard.” Paolo prayed that Zlatan wouldn’t point out the obvious parallel. While Paolo didn’t deny it, he did believe his family had acted far more properly in regards to their heritage than Sforza had, but he doubted Zlatan would appreciate the difference. “The son of a Visconti and his mistress. There were legitimate children to carry on the line, so after his wife died, he married the mistress and got a dispensation from the Pope legitimizing her son after the fact. But only on the condition that he and his descendents would be disqualified from ever inheriting the duchy.”
Zlatan turned. “You’re a Visconti?”
“No, I’m a Maldini. They couldn’t take on the name either.” And they’d done well enough without it, Paolo thought. At this point in time most people did consider the two families to be separate and so they’d largely managed to avoid the troubles that had befallen the Visconti.
“Well, changing the name didn’t keep anybody alive.” The end of the sword scraped against the ground as Zlatan turned back to the window. He brought up a hand to rest on the sill, then began to drum his fingers.
Paolo concentrated on making his breathing slow and even, and ignored the flare of anger in the back of his mind. “There’s still the blood-claim, but we’ve been very careful never to assume too much public importance in Milan. We care about the city before our own profit. That’s…my father worked as a Sforza advisor for years. He believed Francesco Sforza was a better choice than letting France annex the duchy.”
“Didn’t like Il Moro so much, then?” Zlatan leaned forward to brace his shoulder against the wall, putting his back to Paolo. The sword disappeared behind him but a moonbeam traced a silver line from his ear to his shoulderblade, like another blade lying across him.
“No.” Though he’d reserved his judgment for years, believing that the man could be reasoned with—Paolo, on the other hand, had never liked the man. The arguments he and his father had had over Ludovico Sforza…Paolo covered his mouth, though the darkness already hid his bitter smile well enough. “But he didn’t—he spoke in anger, when he finally gave up on Ludovico, saying that we should never have let the Sforzas in. He didn’t mean it the way Ludovico’s taking it. He meant Milan never should have submitted to them, not that we should have taken over when Filippo Maria Visconti died.”
The corners of Paolo’s eyes suddenly began to sting as if he’d been struck hard across the face. He lifted his fingers and pressed their tips to the top of his nose, and then across the eyelid. Then he took them away and rubbed his thumb against them, and he felt a slight slickness.
“Is that what you and he disagreed about?” Zlatan asked. He tapped his nails against the glass to make a frenetic series of tiny clicks.
“No. No, I agreed with him there. We’re better off as advisors,” Paolo said.
“So much for thinking about the city first.” Zlatan turned just as Paolo sat up, then slung himself back so the weight of his hip was coming down on the windowsill. Only half his face was in the light except for his smile, which cut brightly from the pale, distinct side to the featureless black one like some monstrosity out of the Book of Revelations. “Well, so what now? Il Moro’s no good, but you don’t want to get rid of him.”
Paolo slashed at the sheets before he quite realized what he was doing. He buried his hand in the mattress, digging in till he could feel the individual stalks of straw in the stuffing, and so barely held himself still. “I’d like nothing else if he were taken from this earth. For the sake of Milan and what’s left of my family.”
“All right, you do hate him. Great. But you keep talking about running, and what, are you waiting for somebody else to face him?” The lips closed and the white teeth disappeared, but the tone of Zlatan’s voice made it clear the mockery hadn’t left. “You know, long as he’s alive, you can’t go anywhere in Italy.”
“I have no army and my wife is ill, and I have two children too young to leave alone,” Paolo grated out. “Anyway, what’s your interest in this? I have no money either, and—”
“And that’s what would get me interested,” Zlatan dryly said. He laughed and the pane of glass directly in front of his face frosted. “Well, since we’re talking about it, no relatives anywhere else? Friends? Hell, what about your wife’s family?”
Paolo opened his mouth to castigate the other man, but his throat suddenly closed on him. By the time he’d managed to make himself relax, he’d had time to think and…and angry as he was, he hadn’t considered any of those things yet—not seriously, at length and with the intention to form a plan out of it. He could say that he’d been distracted by Adriana’s illness, but truthfully, that should have only spurred on his efforts to finding a permanent safe haven. He shouldn’t have to be told to do so.
He dropped his head into his hand, then moved his fingers to press against his temple. Never mind what had already happened; he’d waste more precious time if he allowed himself to wallow. “No one closely related enough to care was outside of Milan—my brother was getting married again. Everyone had come for the wedding. My wife’s relatives are Sforza supporters. As for friends…no, even in Rome I think Sforza is too influential. Or too feared. The Pope himself courts him.”
A strange, rasping sound from the window made Paolo look up, only to find Zlatan whirling about so the sword thudded against the wall. Zlatan glanced down but didn’t stop as he crossed the room and opened the door, his movements jerky with annoyance. “You really sure you want to survive? Because you’re pretty hopeless at thinking about it.”
Paolo started to reply, but his protest was barely formed in his mind, let alone ready to progress to his tongue, when the door slammed shut behind the other man. He put his hand against the wall and pushed up onto his knees, paused, and then sat back down. He’d heard the tumblers of the lock clicking and so it didn’t matter that he had a good, reasonable explanation ready. It wasn’t all that admirable either, when he knew perfectly well that he had to do more than explain. But he was trying, and trying every moment of the day with all the effort he could muster, and why he still couldn’t see a clear way to safety was beyond him and all the reason in the world couldn’t seem to change that.
His father would have been disgusted with Paolo, if he’d lived. But that insight did no better than the rest at clarifying his mind, and in the end he simply laid back down. He didn’t sleep, but his thoughts weren’t any improvement over his dreams.
* * *
“Oh, he was already in. He brought up breakfast for us and I took my medicine then, and told him how I was doing,” Adriana absently said, trying to twitch a loose fold of Daniel’s swaddling-cloth back into place. As she tucked it in, a tress of her hair fell loose and towards Daniel, who gulped at it with a tiny rosebud mouth. Adriana pulled the strands back and twisted them behind her ear, then glanced up at Paolo. Then she looked at him again, a little more worriedly. “He said he had to leave right afterward and wouldn’t be back till the afternoon, so I didn’t ask him to wait for you.”
Paolo became aware of his expression and shook his head, then bent closer to trace the downy curls that wisped about the top of Daniel’s forehead. “You had no idea when I was coming anyway, and it’s you he needs to talk to.”
“I still wish you’d been here.” Something was odd about the way Adriana said that, and she seemed to realize it since she laid a regretful hand over Paolo’s wrist. “He thinks I’m doing well, and that possibly tomorrow I should try to walk around the room, to stretch my legs so the blood doesn’t pool in them. And he brought up the trade fair again—this is the last day that someone could leave here and make that, it seems.”
“That’s not something we can discuss,” Paolo slowly said. He’d barely mentioned the idea at dinner last night when Zlatan had lost his temper and asked if Paolo just wanted to send a letter to Il Moro, inviting him up to get them. “It looks like the medicine you’re already taking is quite efficient.”
Adriana raised her brows at him and irritation surged up in Paolo’s breast so quickly and so strongly that he had to bite his lip to keep his tongue silent. But she merely nodded, her gaze flicking past his shoulder. She called to Christian, who was playing on the floor with his top and toy horse, to come a little closer to the bed. “What do you and he talk about?” Her eyes searched Paolo’s face, then fell to Daniel. “I’m only asking for the topics, Paolo.”
“A range of things.” Paolo shifted so he could see Christian without having to twist his head about. “He…asks about what happened to us, about the politics. Noble families, who’s related to who.”
“Why is he interested in that? Is he looking for an employer?” Adriana asked. A thoughtful furrow appeared between her brows.
It actually took a moment for Paolo to deduce the train of thought that would’ve led to that question, and irrationally he felt another wave of annoyance pass through him. If Adriana was getting more rest than he was, then that was all for the better, and that didn’t necessarily mean she was less worried than before. “I don’t know. I thought he was contracted out, with how he acted in Milan, but since then he doesn’t seem to be reporting to anyone. But I don’t know what he’s doing most of the time.”
“But what does he intend to do with us? If he’s not even contracted to anyone, to whom we could try appealing as a fellow member of the nobility…” Adriana pressed her lips together on the end of the last word. She looked away, the muscle of her cheek rippling slightly, and then back at Paolo. “Am I also not to know what our fate is?”
“I don’t speak because I don’t know,” Paolo said. He sensed Christian lifting his head towards them and began to turn, but in doing so he glimpsed something move darkly across Adriana’s face. His ire rose and he remained where he was. “Adriana, it’s not that I don’t appreciate your worry, or distrust you or—you shame me, when I think about how well each of us have handled things. I love you, and I don’t want to share misery with those I love.”
She looked at him, gaunt with sickness and exhaustion but still steady-eyed and beautiful. Then her mouth moved a little, and when she blinked a wet film came over her eyes. She put her hand down and pushed herself to the side a few inches, then leaned forward. Her head came to rest against Paolo’s shoulder and he put his arm up around her back to support her, turning himself so Daniel between them wouldn’t be crushed. His nose grazed her hair and though it still lacked its old luster, the strands carried a faint trace of perfume that made his chest ache.
“You aren’t sleeping still. There are bags beneath your eyes,” Adriana murmured.
Paolo stiffened. He felt her tense as well and roundly cursed himself for being so lacking in self-control. “Christian’s not the only one having nightmares.”
Adriana twisted her head so she could look up at him. Affection and concern were foremost in her face, but there was something else Paolo hadn’t seen in her in—in years, since their early days. She was reserving a part of herself, wary of him. “Of Milan? How bad are they?”
“As awful as they possibly could be,” Paolo said. He grimaced, trying to find the words to explain, but simply thinking about it brought the horrors back and he flinched from them.
An unreadable opaqueness went over Adriana’s eyes, as if she’d thrown a thick veil over herself. She looked down, at Daniel. “Paolo, my worst nightmare is losing you and the children. So I ask and ask, but when you don’t talk it’s like it’s coming true.”
He looked sharply at her. “You’re my wife and the mother of my sons. I belong to you.”
“But perhaps I’m not the only…” Adriana closed her eyes, then opened them to gaze at Paolo. They were clear, so clear they seemed to go all the way to her soul, and there she was frustrated and startlingly rueful. “You talk in your sleep, occasionally. And in all the years I’ve been married to you, I’ve never asked who this ‘Sandro’ is. I didn’t know you at all and then when I did, I didn’t want to take the risk. But maybe I should have.”
She waited a moment longer, then pulled away to lie back against the pillows. The effort taxed her, turning the skin around her mouth white and leaving behind a sheen of sweat on her forehead, but Paolo didn’t lift a hand till it was too late. He was too stunned by the turn the conversation had taken.
And then, unexpectedly, he was angry. He was tired and his mind hadn’t stopped spinning since they’d fled Milan, and he simply hadn’t had the time to make it stop. He hadn’t been able to grieve or to rage or even to be properly afraid, and the need to do all of those things was like a snake gnawing in his gut that grew bigger every day, but he was trying to move past it for Adriana’s sake, and so he needed her not to ask. Not till he’d found answers to some of the other questions, and yet she did while talking about her love for him.
“That was before you,” he finally said, curt and low.
Her head came up and her eyes flashed as if she were going to contest the point. But then the flash became a damp glitter, and the planes of her face sagged into a strange sadness, almost as if she were also on the point of grim amusement. She shook her head. “I wish I could make you see, but everything I say seems to point you in the wrong direction.”
Then she fell silent, and Paolo had no desire to break into it. They simply sat there, their gazes crossing below their faces, until Christian came over. Then they roused themselves, and for his sake tried to act as if nothing had changed, but the tension eventually stretched beyond them. When Senderos came in, Paolo found himself breathing a sigh of relief and then swallowing a cry of hurt as his son greeted the other man too feverishly.
But he said nothing, and though she likewise looked pained, neither did Adriana.
* * *
Before Paolo laid his head on his pillow that night, he included in his prayers a request to sleep free of nightmares. He didn’t really take it seriously; it was nonsense intended only to crowd out the other thoughts that weighed on him.
But someone had listened, for though he passed through a few moments of terror, they were nebulous and fleeting. Instead he dreamed of when he’d gone to Rome for a few years of study, when enough of his brothers had still been living for his father to not keep too close an eye on him. When he’d been carelessly happy in the way of the young, without the burdens of the responsibilities of his birth. When it seemed perfectly natural for love to come so easily, without a fight, free of uneven patches and hurtful silences and struggles to compromise.
He opened his eyes, some noise stirring him out of daze, and in a flickering, warm yellow circle of light was a strong, lean body with rivulets of water licking over the arms to drip from the elbows. More trickles caught the candlelight and lined the muscles of the chest and belly in shades of gold, so bright and gleaming that Paolo across the room could almost feel the wetness on his tongue.
Then it turned, and the great slashing scars across the back were so shockingly wrong that Paolo exclaimed aloud. He blinked hard, and when he opened his eyes again the last vestiges of sleep had fled before the dim, stolid lines of the room. And he could see, to his mingled humiliation and disgust, how ridiculously desperate he must have been in trying to stall his dream and overlay it on the reality.
Zlatan dropped the rag he’d been holding—the loud splat it made against the table-top made Paolo start again—and wiped at the water running down his neck, staring narrow-eyed at Paolo. There was a bucket at his feet, sitting in a sizable puddle, and the thing in his other hand was probably soap. “Better to look at than your nightmares?” he asked, tone curiously flat.
Paolo sat up and pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes, then dragged them down his face. He didn’t want to look at Zlatan again so he stared at the candle and the bunched pile of clothing on the table. “My apologies.”
For that he got a bark of a laugh, and the sound of bare feet slapping across the floor along with the sloshing of water. Then a metallic whining, and at that Paolo’s curiosity got the better of him. He looked up to find Zlatan emptying the bucket out the window—his gaze accidentally took in the man’s backside and Paolo half-stifled a curse as he quickly diverted his eyes to the ceiling.
“It’s fucking cold out tonight,” Zlatan said, walking back. He stopped roughly where the table was and, judging from the rustling noises, was rubbing himself down with another rag. “God’s balls, I have whip-marks, all right? If you need to throw up, just get it over with already.”
“I wasn’t…I’m trying to respect your privacy.” Paolo looked down at the floor, then grabbed up a fistful of the sheets. He started to slide back under them. “I don’t need to throw up.”
“Then why were you looking at me like that?” Zlatan snapped. He shoved at a chair so it skidded over the floor.
The noise briefly attracted Paolo’s attention. Then he shook his head and glanced back at the table, but Zlatan wasn’t there anymore. His sword was propped up against it, but—something touched Paolo on the shoulder and he jerked away, then hauled himself backwards till he hit the wall.
Zlatan was perched on the edge of the bed, and since that was lengthwise against the wall, he was less than two feet away. He’d pulled on his clothes, Paolo was relieved to see, but he’d brought the candlestick with him.
It was a tallowfat candle and so the light it threw off was very weak, stretching out in a circle barely wider than a man’s forearm. The edge of the light fell across Paolo’s waist, but as he looked at it, the dull yellow curve slowly moved upwards. He involuntarily shifted back and it leaped, flashing into his face so the quickness more than made up for the dimness and caused him to lift a shielding hand.
Paolo heard the slap first, then felt the stinging of Zlatan’s palm against his wrist. Before he could pull it, Zlatan’s fingers had closed around it and pulled it aside as the other man leaned forward, lifting the candle higher so the oily, fetid smell of the burning fat blew into Paolo’s face.
Zlatan peered at him, eyes narrowed to slits. The shadows carved back over his cheeks so he looked more like a hunting bird than a man. “Wait. You were blushing.”
“I was startled,” Paolo said. He shifted up against the wall and Zlatan’s fingers ground into the bones of his wrist. Grimacing, Paolo dragged his gaze to Zlatan’s left ear; if he didn’t acknowledge the other man’s interest, perhaps the reason for Zlatan’s staring would also fade away. “It’s dark.”
The rim of the candle-light circle brushed over Paolo’s forehead, like a warm breath, then stroked down the bridge of his nose and away across his cheek as Zlatan lowered the candlestick to rest it on his knee. He let go of Paolo’s arm and twisted his hand in the same motion so its knuckles were pressing into Paolo’s cheek before Paolo had dropped his arm to the bed.
“Well, it’s nighttime,” Zlatan remarked. He drew out his words, letting the mocking humor of them flower fully before he went on. “Take me for somebody else?”
“I was dreaming and I thought…yes.” Paolo turned his head away but that only made Zlatan unfold his fingers so his whole hand was flat against the side of Paolo’s cheek. “I thought you were someone else.”
“Even if it’s dark, I don’t think I look that much like your wife.” Zlatan pushed his thumb up under Paolo’s chin just as Paolo jerked it down. His teeth flashed at the hiss Paolo made. “Oh, you weren’t even thinking of her. You’d be less embarrassed and madder if you were.”
If it hadn’t been anger that had built up the heat in Paolo’s face, it was after that. His teeth rasped over each other as the muscles in his jaw clenched and he had to squeeze his hands against the wall to keep himself still.
Zlatan laughed at him. “So she’s not—”
A sudden shiver ran up Paolo’s right arm, then back down and when it reached his wrist, his hand snapped off the wall and towards Zlatan’s jaw. He might have cried out as well—his throat spasmed and he felt a great harsh burst of air rush through his mouth—but for that moment he didn’t hear or see. He merely raged.
Then pain crashed through, splintering his anger and all those fragments fled so when he came back to himself, he was not burning but instead was chilled and aching, fear trapping the breath in his throat.
For a few moments, he and Zlatan stared at each other, and the candle-flame just above Paolo’s face was like an extra eye, its center a baleful dark red. Paolo’s neck and back complained loudly from how they’d been wrenched about, but the hand pinning his throat to the bed wouldn’t have allowed him to move even if he’d dared, with the threat of the hot tallow running down the side of the candle.
“You do like men,” Zlatan abruptly said, and Paolo’s eyes moved back to him. He seemed surprised by the realization, and something else that darkened his face. His lips thinned and his hand flexed so Paolo began to choke.
But then he was off and the light was gone, leaving the darkness to cover Paolo’s gasps for air. The places where his fingers had dug into Paolo’s neck burned and Paolo pressed his own hand into them, trying to rub away the pain. He twisted away from Zlatan, but the wall wouldn’t let him turn and he rolled back, and then went too far so he collapsed facing the other man.
“And you get so upset whenever anybody mentions her,” Zlatan snorted. He reached out and contemptuously flicked his fingers against Paolo’s chin.
Paolo didn’t think this time about being angry, or humiliated or fearful. He didn’t think at all—he simply flipped his hand off his neck and around to slap Zlatan’s fingers to the mattress, and with the same motion he pushed himself back into the wall. His elbow cracked against it and he jerked up; the hand that darted for his throat consequently missed, giving Paolo a chance to fling himself to the end of the bed.
He got one foot on the floor before a sudden metallic rasp stopped him as surely as a blow to the head. Nothing did touch him, but he could sense the other man’s anticipation, like a thread pulled taut between them and only waiting for a touch to snap.
“You lied,” Paolo said. He slowly settled his weight back on the bed, and when he didn’t hear any movement from Zlatan, he put his hand up to tug at his shirt, which had bunched up about his neck. “Earlier. When you said you didn’t mention her unless I did first.”
The tension vanished a moment before the laugh came, startled and oddly warm. “Oh. I did say that, didn’t I?” The bed creaked as Zlatan got up, idly flipping a dagger in his free hand, and then he passed in front of Paolo, going over to the table. He set the candlestick down on it so its jaundiced glow cast his face in brassy insolence, then picked up his sword. His eyes came up to meet Paolo’s and as he pinched out the flame, their whites seemed to snap out into the dark like sparks from a blacksmith’s hammer. “Well, sorry. Next time I’ll wait till you do.”
Paolo bit back his reply, which he hated to admit was not a curse or a reprimand, but a repetition of his excuse of mistaken identity. He dropped his gaze, but couldn’t see his own hands before him and so closed his eyes. Then he squeezed them shut as hard as he could and pinched at the bridge of his nose, hearing but not really caring about Zlatan leaving the room. The other man hadn’t meant his apology, and in the blackness, awake from his false dreams, Paolo knew that it should have been he who expressed regret anyway.
* * *
“I’m sorry, it was too soon and I shouldn’t have been so eager,” Philippe said, scrabbling the blankets from the bed. “I should’ve made sure she was strong enough.”
He stepped back and bumped into Christian, who was watching ashen-faced as Paolo hurriedly swung Adriana back onto the bed. Her head lolled as it touched the pillow and for a moment Paolo’s heart was in his throat. He dropped onto the bed next to her and gently tipped her head towards him, and when her eyes fluttered open he nearly fell on her in relief. As it was, he bent down and pressed a handful of her hair to his mouth, feeling as if he could ransom a kingdom and still not meet its worth.
“Mamma?” quavered a small, thin voice.
Paolo started, then turned slightly and found himself looking directly at Christian’s wide, frightened eyes. A moment later he understood and took the boy from Senderos’ hands, then pulled him about so he could fling himself down on Adriana’s neck, shoulders shaking. They slowed when Paolo laid his hand against Christian’s back, but only stilled when Adriana slid her fingers into Christian’s hair, murmuring reassurances.
“I’m sorry,” Philippe blurted out again. His hands twisted about each other, then jerked about as he all but threw himself at the mortar and pestle on the table, where he’d been showing Paolo how he prepared a dose of medicine. “I thought—”
“Did I even make it to the window?” Christian now nestling his head against her breast, Adriana lifted her head to look at Paolo and then Philippe. She was still far too white in the face, but when Paolo shook his head a healthy spark of irritation came into her eyes. “Oh…”
The slightest whisper of an epithet passed her lips before Christian moved and Adriana bit her lip, looking chagrined. Her eyes and Paolo’s met, and their amusement briefly joined them.
“…but these aren’t working as fast as I hoped. I don’t know if you’ll be able to travel in a week. If you do you might be fine for a day, but then you could have a relapse and it’d be worse the second time around,” Philippe said, now muttering but no less frantic. His hands were flying between the neat bunches of herbs, the little jars and the littler vials that crowded around him on the table. “It’d be hard to make some of these on the road, too—well, it depends on where you go. If you go into the mountains you won’t be able to find the right kind of this…”
“Has it been decided where we’re to go?” Adriana asked. Her hand stilled in Christian’s curls as she gazed steadily up at Paolo, her expression carefully blank.
Paolo pressed his lips together and reached down to pull the blankets over the two of them. “Is it possible to make up a larger batch and store it?”
Philippe had his head down and was saying something about the timing in digging up some local plant, and apparently hadn’t realized he was being spoken to. But Adriana had heard and understood; her mouth tightened and her eyes were beginning to fill with anger before she abruptly turned to Christian. Then the set of her shoulders softened till they were slumping, and the movement of her fingers through Christian’s hair slowed, turning heavy and lethargic.
They stilled when Paolo passed his hand over Christian’s head and brushed Adriana’s hand as well. He hesitated, then lifted his arm and got up from the bed.
At Paolo’s approach, Philippe’s hands stuttered a little, but Paolo had to repeat his question twice before the other man finally heard him. Philippe paused, then regretfully shook his head. “These aren’t enough even when she’s able to rest all day. If you’re traveling, then the strain…” he looked up, caution overcoming his nerves “…do you have to travel?”
“Unfortunately, it’s a necessity,” Paolo said.
“There are…there are monasteries and convents not too far away—very reputable ones. If you have to see to something, can’t you leave your family temporarily with one of them?” Philippe cracked the pestle on the edge of the mortar instead of putting it into the hollow. He stifled a curse, glancing towards the bed, and sifted through the mortar’s contents till he’d found the stone chip he’d knocked into that.
“That’s not a possibility,” Paolo immediately replied. But not, he thought as his blood suddenly chilled, because Zlatan might not find it an attractive option. “We can’t be separated. It’s not even something I’ll consider, so please don’t—”
The pestle cracked something again and Philippe lifted it to peer anxiously into the mortar. But it seemed it was all right, since he resumed grinding. His shoulders hunched a little more than was needed for that task. “Is it…you can’t…ask…” he flinched “…never mind, I don’t think that’s any of my business.”
Paolo looked at Adriana and Christian, and then at Daniel in the cradle by the bed. “It’s that I won’t ask if my family can be sent away.”
The grinding stopped. Philippe lifted his head just enough to gaze at Paolo with mingled curiosity and concern. He started to speak, but then frowned and looked at Paolo’s neck. “There’s something sticking out of your collar.”
Paolo slowly lifted his hand, then felt about his neck, but his clothes seemed fine—his fingers brushed a sore spot and he was drawing up his doublet to cover the bruise when Philippe poured something out of a vial onto a rag, then handed that to him. Then the other man returned to his compounding, holding his head even lower than before, as if fearing a rebuke.
Aware of the interest from the bed, Paolo let the rag flop from his fingers for several seconds before he finally applied it to his neck. The stuff on it stung and grew hot, then unexpectedly chilled so it soothed away the ache.
“Zlatan wants me to tell him later today how she’s doing,” Philippe muttered. “What should I say?”
This time, there was no hesitation in the movement of his hands and it was Paolo who suddenly recalled the guard in the corner, and who nearly alerted the man with a nervous glance. He made his aborted jerk of the head into an awkward twist towards a nearby chair, and then sat down in that. “I’m not quite sure why you’re consulting me. You have a responsibility as a doctor.”
“To the people I’m treating. I’m not treating him.” Philippe looked up, eyes searching Paolo’s face. They did go to the guard as well, but only for the briefest second before he sighed. He returned his gaze to his hands, thoughtfully studying the mortar before he set it aside and reached for an empty bottle. After setting a funnel into it, he carefully poured out the mortar’s contents into it. “I don’t think he has a right to know what’s going on. I don’t mean to worry you, but I can’t help what I see, and I haven’t seen anything that tells me that he—”
“You may have seen a few things that seem odd, but you hardly know the cause behind them. Making assumptions would not be a fruitful endeavor, either,” Paolo said, alarm roughening his voice. His heart had leaped at first, but then cold reason had strongly urged caution: as much as he appreciated Philippe’s sympathy, he could hardly rate the man a good dissembler based on what he’d seen, and that would be absolutely necessary with Zlatan. If the man smelled a lie, then he’d have no compunctions about seeing for himself and Paolo wished to keep him and Adriana as separated as possible. “You should first be sure that you know the true circumstances, lest you make a grave error.”
For a moment, Philippe gazed at Paolo, and the bewilderment that colored his face was curiously underpinned with disappointment. His eyes flicked over Paolo’s shoulder, then abruptly dropped and he filled up the vial with some of the local wine, then capped it and spun it nimbly between his fingers to dissolve its contents. “If I ask what the truth is, are you able to tell me?”
The conversation had long since strayed into dangerous waters and urgently needed to return to safer ground, but Paolo couldn’t help experiencing a pang of injured pride—this man, little more than a youth, presumed to question Paolo’s ability to handle a situation?—and also the sour taste of disgust spreading over his tongue. For Philippe obviously could guess much of what was the matter, with little more than a few days’ acquaintance with Paolo and his family, and already he was suggesting action. And he was right—things couldn’t remain as they were for much longer. Even if Paolo didn’t think that lying to Zlatan about Adriana’s health was the best way to go about it, he still had to commend Senderos for even thinking that much about the problem. He himself hadn’t been able to focus for that paltry amount of effort.
“What are you telling me about my wife?” he finally said, pitching his voice too low for any of the others in the room to hear.
Philippe glanced at him, eyebrows lifting some of the deep wrinkles in the other man’s forehead. “She either has to start immediately on the stronger medicine, which I can’t make with what I’ve got, or you have to stay here longer. Otherwise she’ll begin to get worse again and I won’t be able to do anything.”
“How much worse?” Paolo pressed two fingers to the side of his nose. Since Zlatan had stormed out of the room last night, he hadn’t seen the man: Materazzi had come and taken him out at breakfast time, then conducted him down the hall to this room. Nor did he have any idea when Zlatan would return, but given what Philippe had said earlier he assumed—he hoped and dreaded—it would be some time before the end of the day. Zlatan didn’t seem to like leaving Paolo for too long; thinking about the other man’s wariness gave Paolo a moment of grim humor, considering how low Paolo rated himself right now.
“I think she could die.” The seriousness of Philippe’s tone was at odds with the slightly uncertain expression on his face. But then he shook his head, making his decision, and levelly met Paolo’s stare. “And I’ll tell Zlatan that, if you think it’d be worth trying. It’s the truth.”
And Paolo flinched at it. Then he gave himself an irritable shake and looked away, across the room at his family: Adriana lying down, Christian’s head on her shoulder, and one hand trailing over the side of the bed to rock Daniel’s cradle. Her long slender fingers were bluish at the tips and as Paolo watched, they slipped clumsily off the edge of the cradle, then moved to find it with the deliberate slowness forced by a lack of strength.
“Then tell him the truth,” Paolo said. He thought bitterly of last night’s dream before resolutely pushing those memories away. They had no place here and moreover, he shouldn’t be so tempted to welcome them over the present’s demands, however harsh those were. “I will be speaking to him later as well, but you have the greater knowledge here. He should know what is the real situation—that is simplest.”
“But is it going to be the most convincing?” Philippe asked, tone a little edged. When Paolo looked at him, he lowered his gaze and shrugged one shoulder, but the gesture hardly apologized for his forwardness. “She wouldn’t die right away. He might think you could move, and then pick up the treatment later, but I don’t think that will work. I’ll tell him so, but…”
Paolo pulled the rag from his neck and dropped it on the table. He laid his hands flat against the wood, then got up while watching the pressure turn his fingers white around the knuckles. “Tell him what you think, as a doctor. That’s the concern you have here and that’s all you need think about.”
Then he went back to the bed, where Adriana still looked on him with mingled frustration and sadness. But Christian was livelier now, springing up into Paolo’s arms almost before he’d sat down and talking feverishly about nonsensical things, and over his head Paolo’s and Adriana’s gazes saw the same concern in each other’s faces. While he was awake, Adriana wouldn’t quarrel, and his apparent nerves suggested he would keep them busy for the rest of the day. Another stare did prickle the side of Paolo’s face as he quietly responded to Christian, but Senderos finished his work soon enough and left.
“Philippe takes doctoring rather seriously for a seasonal hobby. It seems more and more that he signed on only so he could ensure his directions were properly carried out,” Adriana said. She didn’t look at Paolo as she spoke, but over his shoulder at the door, her eyes briefly distant with thought.
“He’s very young.” Paolo reached down and took Daniel, who was beginning to fuss loudly, into his arms. “And he’s more impulsive than I thought, if that’s the case. That’s a very large sacrifice for him to make for such a whim.”
Adriana’s gaze swept over Paolo, then went to Daniel. Her mouth became a small narrow line, then unfolded slightly as she took the baby into her arms. Then Christian asked about a cow he’d seen from the window and both Paolo and Adriana answered him. Christian seemed confused by the tangle of voices so Paolo stopped and Adriana finished, her eyes fixed firmly on their son.
* * *
Zlatan didn’t come in before night fell and Materazzi deflected Paolo’s reluctant question on the subject with a shrug and then a shove so Paolo stumbled into the room. Before he could turn, the door had been shut and locked. He allowed himself a silent swear at the unyielding wood, then went about his preparations for sleeping.
Someone had left a bucket of water on the floor, near a brazier of hot coals. There was also a small palm-sized object wrapped in paper by it, and when Paolo unfolded the paper he found it to be a ball of soap. He weighed it in his hand, thinking about several things and reaching no conclusions on any of them, then bent and dipped his hand through the water.
It was cold, of course. But he chose not to let it warm up on the brazier, instead hoping that the combination of it and the harsh tingling of the soap would clear his head. He washed his face and ears and neck, then knelt so he could scoop water over his hair without creating a large puddle around himself.
Paolo hadn’t been paying much attention, but a chilly draft teasing through his wet hair brought that to his notice now. He squeezed as much moisture as he could, then pulled off his doublet and untucked his shirt so he could use its long tails to pull out more from his hair, but enough was left to turn the skin of his face and neck icy by the time he sat down on the bed. His head was beginning to ache as well, but since he hadn’t planned on chasing sleep right away, that was merely an annoyance. He ignored it and leaned against the headboard to watch the little lines of light that slipped through the shutters retreat across the floor.
But in spite of the headache and his firm intentions, he still managed to drop off. And inevitably, the dreams came.
No pleasant ones tonight, as if whoever was managing that did listen to his hopes, but only to the letter of them. He was in Milan again, he knew that much, but he wasn’t certain quite where in the city he was. The walls were high brooding stone and crouching over his head as if any moment they were going to fall upon him, and the passage was narrow and winding—he thought perhaps he was mixing a memory from his childhood, from some time his father had been taking him through the older parts of the city.
His father. Cesare was there, and Paolo’s brothers somewhere behind them, and Paolo and Cesare were arguing so he couldn’t be a child, since then he’d never have dared raise a voice against the other man. So he was grown, but still with the instinctive, unreasoning terror of a boy at the dark looming walls and the blind twists because he knew, somehow he knew, that what lay beyond them—they had to stop now, he was saying, before it was too late, but his father kept walking and he could only follow, and then they’d rounded the corner and he knew, he’d known--
When the killing started he threw himself forward and a very little awareness disturbed him then—he hadn’t been there before, he’d been further back and his brother had seen first and forced him away—but it was barely a ripple compared to the overwhelming rage that seized him. He didn’t care about the swords, the steel flashing in and out of flailing bodies, he didn’t care and he just plunged into them, after his father, but so much kept getting in the way. He pushed at them with his hands and when they wouldn’t go, he fought, but he wasn’t quick enough. His father’s back—his father’s head—the brown disappeared into red and Paolo opened his mouth and—
His eyes opened a moment before the back of his head slammed into the bed. He was all twisted about, the small of his back icy as a gust of wind grazed across it and sweat dripping into his eyes, and his hand was stinging badly as it fell back beside his head. Then something slapped down on it, holding it in place as he thrashed, catching soft flesh with his knee and then his other hand. But the other person jerked away, and then an iron grip was digging into his forearm and forcing it down on the other side of his head. There was weight on his legs and then more, sudden and hard, on his belly so he gasped and tried to arch, and inadvertently threw himself into the pressure. The air burned out of his lungs and he collapsed in agony.
“Christ.” Something skin-warm was dripping onto Paolo’s face. Whoever had spoken snuffled loudly and the dripping increased to nearly a trickle. “God’s balls. I fucking hope you’re awake now.”
It was dark, but there was a low light coming from somewhere in the room and slowly Paolo could begin to make out things. Two eyes. The frayed line of tousled hair. Zlatan, more angry than winded, with some dark stuff smeared under his nose and over his mouth so he looked as if he were missing teeth. Then his tongue flicked over his upper lip and Paolo saw that wasn’t so.
“You were yelling at your father again.” Zlatan craned his head about and tried to wipe off his face on his shoulder, but winced and jerked back. He shifted his grip on Paolo’s left wrist so he was yanking it painfully far behind Paolo’s shoulder, then used his free hand to gingerly feel about his nose. “I’m bleeding.”
“I didn’t know—I wasn’t hitting you,” Paolo rasped. The rage of the dream had gone, but the cold, irrational fear that had gripped him at the beginning of it rose to take his place. He still wasn’t entirely sure he wasn’t in that anymore; he could barely remember who Zlatan was. “They were taking him away and he wasn’t dead yet, he was calling back to me. He was—he wasn’t dead yet. I could hear him.”
The other man wasn’t looking at or, apparently, listening to him since Zlatan was muttering about fucking lucky the bone felt all right. His hold on Paolo’s arm slackened till Paolo’s elbow was resting on instead of digging into the mattress. The lessening of pain allowed for a few thoughts to string themselves together and Paolo realized he was still struggling, trying to force his legs free. He made himself stop, but he couldn’t calm his breathing. His pulse was pounding in his ears and echoes of that ferocious stuttering were singing down his taut nerves, making his limbs shake. The sweat on his face was as icy as if he’d plunged his head into a snowdrift.
Zlatan finally pinched his nose shut and, snorting and sucking noisily through his mouth, stared down at Paolo. His brows drew together, then rose slightly. Head cocked, he looked at Paolo as if he wasn’t quite sure what he had beneath him while his hand slowly uncurled from Paolo’s wrist. He pulled it out from under Paolo’s head, let it rest a moment on Paolo’s shoulder, and then lifted it to touch the blood on Paolo’s face.
His fingertips felt like tiny hot coals. Paolo’s gasps turned even more ragged and his mouth dropped open wider as he pushed his head up. The fingers slid down the bridge of his nose, then paused on his upper lip while the thumb scraped a thick blot of blood from his cheekbone; he felt a little of it dribble into his ear and jerked his head to the other side. His gaping mouth pressed into Zlatan’s palm.
That stiffened so it felt like stone against Paolo’s lips. Then it pushed down, onto his cheek, and forced his head back and a tongue touched his bottom lip, wriggled over his teeth and curled against the side of his mouth. He moaned at the shocking warmth of it so his jaw closed a little and then lips were pressing around his mouth, and the stone hand had gone to flesh again and was curved around his face and pushing his jaw up more till his lips and the other ones matched. He’d shut his eyes but the sharp, sweet taste of blood mixed with an earthier wetness was almost like a color against his eyelids, so vivid was it.
He did kiss back. He kissed back long and hard and if there was desperation in it, there was also enjoyment because it was hot against his coldness, it was soothing against his pain. He kept kissing because he liked it, because he wanted it to go on and he was willing to do what was needed to make that happen. And he was good at that, he knew he was and he could feel the truth of it in the way the tongue in his mouth twisted, the hand on his face pressed then slipped back to hold up his head. He went with it, eager to delve deeper into the warm mouth teasing over his own, and to help with that he put his arm up and over a shoulder—
--the wrenching in his own shoulder stole his breath away, but the impact of his arm and head being shoved back onto the mattress was what forced his eyes open. A little burst of air came out of him, and then he stared blankly up.
Zlatan’s face was tense and closed, as if his skin was not only actually a mask of metal but also being yanked tightly down on his real face. He gouged his nails into the tendons of Paolo’s wrist till Paolo hissed. “Don’t do that.”
It was shockingly cold with Zlatan holding himself away, and Paolo either had started shaking again or hadn’t stopped, but had only just noticed it again. He wasn’t thinking when he spoke. “I won’t, I’m sorry.”
And he had no idea what they were talking about, and Zlatan’s slight start gave him no clues. The other man remained leaning over Paolo, his eyes gleaming in the candlelight so Paolo couldn’t read the expression in them, but Zlatan was chewing at his lip so even in the dimness, Paolo could see the flesh beneath his teeth whiten. The blood was beginning to run from Zlatan’s left nostril again.
Paolo watched the drop bead to a pregnant roundness, then thin out when it touched a drying smear that ran down to Zlatan’s upper lip. Then it began to swell again into the air, threatening to fall, and Paolo raised his hand.
Zlatan jerked his head back so the drop swung wildly and almost detached, his eyes snapping to Paolo’s hand. They tracked it as it more slowly came near Zlatan’s mouth—Zlatan retreated very slightly, then held stiffly in place as Paolo wiped at the blood, so lightly the ball of his thumb felt only slickness. Paolo pulled his hand away, then gingerly stretched out his fingers. He touched the side of Zlatan’s jaw, then the cheek. The ear, by the hairline, and he’d just started to push his fingertips into the damp strands there when Zlatan yanked his arm down and ground it into the mattress. “Don’t do that,” he snarled, his teeth coming together so hard on the words that they clicked. “The hell are you trying to do? Think I’m somebody else again?”
“No,” Paolo said. And it was the truth—remnants of the nightmare were still coloring his mind, but he wasn’t seeing anyone but Zlatan above him. Though now, after the mental jarring Zlatan’s words had given him, the fierce burning guilt in his chest made him wish he had been. “No, I was—my nightmare—”
Snarling something Paolo didn’t understand, something that wasn’t even Italian, Zlatan violently shook him. Then he did it again, his knees smashing into Paolo’s hip and belly, so Paolo’s vision went temporarily black with pain. When it cleared, he saw Zlatan’s bloody face coming down and he jerked his head to the side, wincing in anticipation.
But at the last moment Zlatan pulled himself aside, only his breath scorching Paolo’s ear. He inhaled sharply, then pulled away and off Paolo. His boots thumped on the floor and faded as Paolo painfully rolled onto his side, clutching aching wrists to sore stomach. Then they returned and Paolo jerked his head up.
Something soft hit his face. As he pulled it off and found it to be a clean rag, the side of the mattress dipped. Zlatan had gotten another for himself and for a few strained moments, they each attended to themselves.
Then Zlatan half-turned, looking at something past Paolo and to the side. His lip curled, and then he snorted, the sound still a bit wet with all the blood in his nose. “There’s some on the sheets. You can change them if that matters to you, since you’re the one who’ll be sleeping on them.”
“Why don’t you ever use the bed?” Paolo asked. Then he grimaced; his sense was returning and he’d embarrassed himself enough without that sort of comment slipping out.
A little of Zlatan’s more usual humor returned in the derisive smile he flashed Paolo. “Because you got on it first, and you’re disgusting. When’s the last time you washed yourself down all over? Not just your face and hands?”
“I’ve been traveling and haven’t had the opportunity,” Paolo replied. He’d aimed for dryness but it came out more bitter than anything else. “Besides, bathing too often weakens the body and can lead to diseases like pneumonia and malaria.”
“You sound as stiff as that Senderos. If you had asked, somebody would’ve brought you a bucket and some soap. I even would’ve left the room, though I’m not so sure now that you care about that,” Zlatan said. He grinned at Paolo’s face, squeezing at his nose so a thickish clot oozed out of it. After wiping that away, he got off the bed and went across the room.
Paolo looked down at his hands. He twisted the soiled rag he held till a wet film was forced up through one of the stains, then made himself relax. “Zlatan. I talked to Senderos today, and he…”
The sound of approaching footsteps made him look up. Something blurred by him and he jerked away, then stilled when he saw the bundle Zlatan had thrown onto the bed. After a moment, he reached out and pulled that to him.
“I talked to him too. Sometimes I wonder if that face of his can smile, or if he’s just that serious all the time.” Zlatan’s eyes weren’t so amused when Paolo raised his head to met them. Instead they were wary, almost flinching. They watched Paolo open the bundle as if he was about to hurl its contents across the room. “It was so damn late when that came that I didn’t feel like tracking him down. You can give him that when you see him at breakfast tomorrow.”
Little bottles with labels in Latin and Greek in a crabbed hand, a couple pouches that rustled when Paolo prodded at them. He was slow to understand what they were and what they signified, and when his head shot up again, Zlatan was settling himself in a chair a few feet away, just far enough for Paolo to have to get off the bed to reach him.
“You’d have been dead if you’d stayed for what they did to your father,” Zlatan abruptly said. He draped his sword-belt over the chair-arm so the sword was less likely to clatter to the floor, then pulled something from the floor. A book, its leather cover much scratched and worn, with only a hint of the rich gilt that had once decorated it. He opened it and laid it on his knee, then held the pages down with one hand as he pulled the table with its two candles over by a leg. “Two of your brothers hid, then tried to get his body and they got caught that way.”
Paolo’s breath caught. His hands clenched. Then he slowly uncurled them and, thinking through every motion, rewrapped the bundle and retied the string around it. “You really saw all of that. Or did you just hear about it?”
“No, I saw it.” Zlatan moved about in the chair, having some difficulty in arranging his knees and feet, before finally deciding on a position. Then he started to read—and he was reading, his eyes tracking back and forth with the intentness only comprehension could bring—and despite his apparent interest he was careful with the book, Paolo saw. He used his fingertips to turn the pages and never licked them, instead using a nail to prise apart the sheets. “Well, I wasn’t there till after your father stopped breathing, but I saw…I thought you didn’t want to know about that.”
Frankly, it was the last thing Paolo wanted to talk about with anyone, let alone Zlatan, but at the same time he’d come to realize he needed to know. The terror of a child was the terror of too little knowledge; the terror of a man was the terror of too much. And he believed—he had to believe, if he was going to be capable of plotting his family’s survival—that he could deal better with the second. “I changed my mind.”
That made Zlatan look at him, and almost say something as well, but instead Zlatan tossed his head and resumed reading. “Well, they took him to the cathedral steps, and I hear they tried to make him make some speech about how wrong he was. He wouldn’t say it and they killed him in front of a whole crowd. I got there about then…they dragged the body back to the Signoria’s palazzo and hung it up, and smeared it with horse-shit and used it for some archery practice…if you’re going to throw up, do it out the window. I’m not your fucking maid.”
“I’m—not going to throw up,” Paolo said thickly. He distracted himself with a debate on where to put the bundle, then decided against putting it on a shelf and for keeping it on the bed with him. If he did manage to fall asleep again tonight, the chance of him crushing something in it was slightly less worrisome than the chance that Zlatan, mercurial as he was, would take it back and disappear before Paolo woke. “What happened to my brothers?”
Zlatan looked at him again, longer and judging. Then he shrugged dismissively. “One of them was taken with your father, and had all the same things done to him. The other two…when they got caught, they were marched into the palazzo and Il Moro tried to talk them into supporting him. But they had to walk past your father’s body and that’s all they talked about. He got frustrated and had a hack at one, and the other started screaming and cursing and he had the guards shove them out a window. The fall broke their necks, but he strung them up anyway with your father and other brother.”
Paolo had to swallow several times before the bile in his throat would go down. He closed his eyes, then snapped them open. Then he half-turned so he could put his hand up over his mouth and dig his thumb and forefinger into his jaw till the corners of his eyes stung, and do it without worrying about what look Zlatan would give him.
“Your sister got herself before Il Moro’s men did, but her husband and their children, and your brothers’ wives and their families, and all the rest…Il Moro wasn’t interested in making deals anymore, so he just had them killed as they were found. I hear most of them were quick, and the kids got smothered instead of knifed,” Zlatan added. He told it tonelessly and without relish or mockery, which was about the kindest he could have been. “They’ve been buried. Il Moro wanted some cardinal to come and reconsecrate everything, but the Pope insisted on that much before he sold out.”
When Paolo dared take his hand from his jaw, he didn’t have to touch his cheeks to know he was crying. He kept his head averted, but pulled his sleeve over his hand and wiped off his face without trying to disguise what he was doing. “You talk like you were physically there for it.”
“Well, I was doing some work for Ludovico.” Zlatan paused. Then he continued in a slightly louder voice, and he spoke a little faster as well. “Not killing your family, by the way. I was scaring off some idiots the Venetians hired, and then came back to get paid and Il Moro didn’t get to that till after the coup.”
“Are you working for him now?” Paolo asked after a moment. His gut was twisting on him and his skin was prickling with cold.
The laugh was startling. “I’d be a lot fucking richer if I were, and not sitting in this lousy little inn. I’ve kept you around too long to give you to him--Il Moro’s not stupid, and right now he’s got a bigger army than me.”
But the improper humor was what made Zlatan’s words genuine, Paolo suddenly understood. That was why his teeth were on edge and his hands were clenched in fists, instead of his whole body being frozen with fear. Oh, he was still afraid, but…but he knew all about it. And that did help.
Zlatan snorted, and Paolo looked up but the other man was jerking away, towards the candle, so his back was partially towards Paolo. It was insolent and challenging, and it was also meant at least partly as a deception. “You still have no idea what you’re going to do, do you?”
Though whatever Zlatan was thinking now, he still had no difficulty in producing words that cut through Paolo’s composure. Paolo had to cover his mouth to keep from spitting out an unwise reply. Then he made himself lie down, tucking the bundle of precious medicinal ingredients against his belly. He half-closed his eyes, but that only proved that his newfound grasp on the situation didn’t extend to ridding his memories of their poison, and if they’d lost some virulence, they still were far too potent for comfort.
So he kept his eyes open, and watched Zlatan read the book. At first the other man darted a few suspicious glances at him, but eventually grew so absorbed that his shoulders slouched against the chair and his legs stretched carelessly before him. He looked his age that way, his face open with fascination in a manner that Paolo wouldn’t have expected from him. The almost violent restlessness that characterized him every other moment had temporarily been replaced with a strange placidity, and it was equally, surprisingly calming to look at it while half-hearing the regular rustling of the pages. And eventually it lulled Paolo into a rest that was light, but that lacked dreams of any kind.
* * *
The creaking of the door and the tromp of Zlatan’s boots had been loud enough to give warning, but neither Senderos nor Adriana seemed to have noticed it. They remained in low discussion, with Senderos’ back leaned dangerously forward from his seat on a chair quite close to Adriana’s bed.
Paolo stared at the pair of them, unable to tell exactly what it was that had just flared up in him, let alone come up with something to say. When Zlatan cleared his throat, Paolo started along with the other two.
“I thought you came up with breakfast,” Zlatan said, drawling nauseating implications with every word. He slung his weight onto his trailing foot and grinned as Senderos spun himself around and off his chair, then scrambled into a standing pose that somehow put his head lower than Paolo’s. “And where the hell’s Blasi?”
“He went to see the wet-nurse out.” Philippe’s face was devoid of any incriminating color, but the anxious glance he directed at Paolo didn’t settle the churning in Paolo’s gut. “I did come in with the food, but they made it wrong and I sent it back down. It’s…it should be…”
A terrified little noise behind Paolo, and then a wafting smell of porridge signaled the arrival of the servant-girl. She slipped in between Paolo and Zlatan, holding her arms as tightly to her side as the tray she carried allowed, while Zlatan hummed thoughtfully. Then he shrugged and turned on his heel. “Well, he’s a fucking idiot and I’m just going to wait in the hall to tell him so. Don’t open the door—” the servant-girl quickly squeezed out while she could “—till I do or tell you to.”
Zlatan went out after the girl and closed the door behind him. Paolo stared at Senderos, then at Adriana, who was tight-lipped and pale but who held her head high, without flinching from his gaze.
Something touched Paolo’s knee. He exclaimed and stepped back, then saw it was only Christian. But his son was skittish and confused, feeling something of the currents swirling about the room, and when Paolo bent down to him, Christian flinched before suddenly throwing himself about Paolo’s neck. Then he buried his face in Paolo’s shoulder, embarrassed. “Good morning, father.”
“Good morning. Did you sleep all right?” To Paolo’s ears, he sounded hollow and forced. He tried to compensate by wrapping his arms about Christian, but a shift beneath his right arm reminded him, and he had to let go of the boy to catch the package before it hit the floor.
Christian started to reply, but his voice quickly trailed off as Senderos made an aborted step forward. He twisted about, looking curiously up at the other man, and then wriggled free of Paolo and darted back to the bed where he stood with one hand nervously patting the blankets. Adriana called to him, but he didn’t seem to hear her and remained poised, as if he thought he might need to flee again.
Paolo swallowed his grimace and slowly got to his feet. He pushed the bundle at Senderos without quite looking at the other man. “I think this is what you were asking for.”
Senderos hesitantly took it, then almost dangled it from his fingers as he tried to tell Paolo something with merely a look. When he saw that that wasn’t effective, he retreated a few inches and plucked at the knots, then undid the wrapping so clumsily that he nearly let a vial fall to the floor. After hastily shifting to stand over the table, he took a good deal more care in spreading the bundle’s contents out over that. He tipped one bottle to look at its label and breathed in sharply, his shoulders hitching unevenly.
“Is Daniel awake? Go check on your brother,” Adriana said behind Paolo, low and urgent.
As Paolo turned, Christian hurried across the room so precipitately that he nearly fell over the cradle in order to stop there. He looked up once, his expression haunted far beyond his years, before kneeling down besides the cradle, his shoulders set far too stiffly.
“He’s terrified,” Paolo hissed as he sat down on the bed.
Adriana looked at him with snapping eyes, and on the sheets her hand jerked up towards her, the fingers half-curling. Then she lowered her gaze, but only to his hand. She reached out and touched his wrist, nudging his sleeve away from the swollen, darkened band of flesh it hid, and when he pulled from her she touched his mouth. Her fingertips lingered a moment before she abruptly yanked them away; her head turned in the same direction so Paolo could see the strain around her mouth. “What did those cost you?”
For a moment Paolo forgot about his sons. Then he looked straight down, covering his wrists with his hands. “If they make you well, they’re well worth it,” he finally said.
“You’re lying to me,” Adriana said, so quietly she was almost speaking to herself. She pressed her hand over her lips, then pushed it further back into her hair. Then she twisted her fingers till a pin came loose and a whole tress fell tangled and twisted over her ear. “Not about my health, but you’re leaving something else out. You always have, but I thought…I thought there’d be time, I thought I’d be able to make you see…”
“There will be time. You will live,” Paolo interrupted, alarmed at her tone.
Her head came up at that, and she stared at him as if she were meeting him again for the first time. But then a bitter kind of resignation came into her eyes, and settled there so securely that it had to be very old. “Oh, I think I will. But I wonder how now.”
To that Paolo had no answer, for as much as her tone shamed him, he hardly even understood her meaning. He looked away, about the room, and his eyes fell on Senderos’ back. “What were you two talking about?”
Adriana followed his gaze, then turned away and laid her head back on the pillow. A grim smile touched the corner of her mouth. “Am I to be doubted as well as kept blind and deaf?”
“We were talking,” Adriana said with great deliberation, “About you. If Philippe could do anything for you—for your nightmares, which I think you’ve been having every night since we came here. If he could give you anything. If he could help you at all, since I’m bound from that in so many ways.”
Paolo looked at her, and saw nothing but truth, and still he found that at the core of his growing guilt was a strange anger with her. So he kept his words to himself, in hopes that at least he could keep himself from doing any more damage today. He rested his elbows on his knees, then pressed his hands into his face to feel the strain and fatigue in the flesh there.
From the hall came a scuffle of raised voices and then a crisp, loud thud. Christian gasped and Paolo looked up to see him accidentally drop his top. He hastily reached for it, but then came a series of thumps and he froze where he was.
The top rolled along the floor, describing a large arc across the room, before narrowly avoiding the in-swinging door to come to rest against a boot-tip. Zlatan paused, glancing down, then stooped to pick it up. He turned it over in his hands—several of his knuckles were reddened and had fresh scrapes, Paolo noticed. There didn’t appear to be anyone behind him in the hall.
“This yours?” Zlatan asked. He turned his head casually enough to look at Christian, but Paolo’s hand dug into the mattress as if he’d whipped it about.
Christian had moved before the cradle and was gripping its rim with both hands. He looked at Paolo and Adriana, then back at Zlatan. “Yes. Philippe gave it to me. It was a gift.”
Something odd passed over Zlatan’s face, not quite a grimace. His eyebrows rose and a flicker of a grin nearly touched his mouth before abruptly vanishing as well. He tossed the top once in his hand, then gently lobbed it to Christian, who clearly surprised himself by catching it without fumbling.
“It’s nice,” Zlatan said blandly, and turned a shoulder to Christian. He waved his hand at the table and Philippe started. “Well, is that all it?”
“It—yes.” Philippe stammered through the beginnings of a few different replies, then took a deep breath. “I need a clean counter, and a fireplace, and…”
Zlatan cut him off with a peremptory jerk of the hand, already moving towards the door. “Fine, fine. Go use the kitchen, and that way you can check the midday meal before it gets sent up. And make up some more of whatever it was you gave those drunks yesterday…Henke? I had a talk with Blasi about following orders, and I think I need to talk to him some more, so come in here for a minute, all right? I’ll send Zanetti up soon as I find him.”
As Zlatan went out, Larsson came in. He turned a mild look of curiosity on Senderos, who was quickly putting the bundle back together, before taking up his usual post in the corner.
After he’d retied the string around the packet, Philippe tucked it under one arm. He took one step towards the door, glanced uncertainly over his shoulder, and then walked out. Christian watched him leave with a stricken look that made the center of Paolo’s chest clench and burn at the same time. But then his son turned towards the bed and Paolo felt nothing but anxious affection at the sight of that small worried face; he held out his hand palm-up and Christian came over to put his palm on top of it. Then he curled his fingers around Paolo’s wrist.
“He’s not awake, mother,” Christian said to Adriana.
“All right. That’s good—he was up most of the night,” she replied.
Paolo kissed the top of Christian’s head. “Was your brother being troublesome?”
He didn’t say a word to Adriana, and she said nothing to him. It was grossly unfair to Christian, especially since he did sense enough of what was going on above his head to wear the furrows of an old man on his brow, but he never said anything either. He simply looked anxiously back and forth between Paolo and Adriana, doing his best to chatter in turns to both of them, and somehow they passed the day in that fashion.
* * *
Zlatan came late that day to collect Paolo, long after the evening meal had come up with the draught of Adriana’s medicine sitting on the tray instead of being carried in by Philippe. Adriana seemed to swallow the stuff with difficulty, but when Paolo tersely asked how she was, she replied indifferently that it was no worse than the previous doses. She turned her cheek to receive Paolo’s farewell kiss, though when Paolo withdrew her head twisted a little towards him, as if she wanted to change her mind.
But it was too late; Zlatan was impatient at the door, and so Paolo had to go. He did so in as foul a temper as he’d ever been in since leaving Milan, and so when Zlatan asked him something he merely asked the man to speak louder.
Frustration had dulled Paolo’s wits: Zlatan didn’t miss the slight and immediately whirled on him, forcing Paolo back towards the door. “You heard me fine. Christ, but I don’t know why I even bother sometimes—the moment I’m nice to you, you think you can treat me like shit. You’re not in fucking Milan now, Paolo.”
Paolo had reflexively thrown up an arm, but no blow was aimed at him. Instead Zlatan reached for his wrist, and the graze of his fingers against the bruised flesh there was a reminder Paolo didn’t need. He knocked the hand aside. “I know where I am. And if I act like that, then perhaps you should rethink your approach.”
“Your fucking wife—”
“Stop trying to use her! As if she’s some—playing card, and when I’m already here,” Paolo snapped. His heel hit something and he tipped backward, only for his shoulders to slap against the rattling door. He could go no further, but Zlatan could and Paolo suddenly refused. He refused Christian’s fear, Adriana’s poor health, their dependence on unreliable strangers, Zlatan’s hand coming at him—he refused all of it.
He struck out at Zlatan’s shoulder, making the other man stagger to the side, then lunged the other way. But he’d barely taken a step before something caught his foot, and then he was seized by the waist and dragged back from his impending fall. His shoulders and head slammed up against the door again, sending hot streaks of pain down his back. His mouth dropped in a gasp and his vision swam, then spun violently.
When it stopped, it did so with an abruptness that twisted strangely, painfully at his arm. Paolo instinctively inched backwards, but only found himself pressing against Zlatan, with his arm being yanked even higher behind his back. He hissed, pulling forward to try and ease the strain, and Zlatan slung his other arm about Paolo’s waist, locking down his free hand to his hip.
“You’re here and look at you, still trying to play lord of the manor. Telling off that wife of yours and then wondering why she’s talking to the nice young doctor. You didn’t even tell them how you got that stuff, did you? The look on her face.” The words were pure fire and licked up the back of Paolo’s neck, singing off the hairs prickling there before searing into his ears. “They know that’s not the truth, you fucking idiot. They know I could’ve made you beg for that, could’ve made you clean my fucking boots with your tongue, my fucking lord.”
“Goddamn you—” Paolo twisted his head away, then threw his weight forward. He bent himself nearly in two and stretched the pain in his shoulder into breathless agony, and when Zlatan’s grip loosened he thought—but no, that was deliberate and in the next moment, Zlatan had hauled him back up, even closer so now Zlatan’s mouth branded his words into Paolo’s skin.
“But you, you think I didn’t do it last night and are you grateful? Are you even fucking respectful of the fact that I could’ve done it? Oh, God, of course not—you have to be the leader, have to be Jesus Christ himself. Letting your wife think that you did when I just handed it to you, with you still crying over your goddamn father…”
The sweat was pouring off Paolo now, sticking his shirt to him and stinging his eyes. It slicked in between his wrists and Zlatan’s hands, and he wrenched at those and did feel them turn. But Zlatan’s fingers clamped down, so hard the sweat was squeezed out between them, and then Zlatan shook him like a cat did a rat; Paolo heard his bones creaking and felt the popping of their joints as so many white-hot coals stabbed into his body. He cursed the other man, but his voice was cracking and he was barely more than hanging from Zlatan’s arms when they turned about.
“You’re the last of the Maldinis, you should’ve gotten Milan instead of the Sforzas, you’re so damn special and God knows why, since you can’t do a damn thing. You didn’t even save your family—you made them hide in the cathedral, and you thought Il Moro wasn’t going to look there eventually? What the hell do you think I was doing there anyway?”
Paolo was shaken again and the jostling threw up his head. He glimpsed the table, saw that his head was well over its top and he realized—he yanked desperately at his arms, then drove himself back into Zlatan, but the other man stood up under the weight. Then he flung them forward, and Paolo just twisted his head about before he was forced down onto the table, its edge smashing into the tops of his thighs. “Zlatan--”
He ran out of breath. His legs were trembling and then his knees gave out so his upper body pressed even harder into the table, turning his gasp for air into a thin, ragged sound. Zlatan was lying so closely on him that Paolo could make out the shape of the man’s belt-buckle gouging into the small of his back. The breath that steamed against Paolo’s neck carried the promise of teeth, and the hand twisting his arm about was as unyielding as iron. He bit his lip till the blood welled up, and now he was face-to-face with his fear, wide awake and unable to look away.
When Zlatan lifted himself a few inches and let go of the arm he was twisting, Paolo didn’t move because he couldn’t. He was as transfixed as a deer pinioned by a hunter’s spear, and he listened to Zlatan’s words as if they were traveling through miles of water to reach him.
“No, I didn’t kill any of your family,” Zlatan was muttering. He sucked in a breath in two uneven parts, then hissed and that seemed to be made up of words, guttural and biting and foreign. “Doesn’t mean I didn’t have the chance to. I wanted to see the cathedral anyway, Ludovico offered me a bonus…don’t know if you were worth the bother, honestly.”
Paolo breathed. It hurt, and he closed his eyes. He pulled at his arm, then turned it about so he could rest it on the table and the blood flooding back into it felt like molten lead. “I don’t think I am,” he said softly. “It should’ve been my father.”
“Well, it can’t be now since he’s dead. He’s dead, you’re not, and you’re no lord now, so there’s no point in acting like one.” A light touch brushed at the back of Paolo’s neck. Then Zlatan grunted and his weight lifted.
He still had an arm under Paolo, though both of them had forgotten till he tried to get up. Zlatan paused and Paolo flipped his hand about, then wrapped his fingers around Zlatan’s wrist. A fist instantly formed against his belly and the tendons in Zlatan’s arm stood out into Paolo’s palm, but Zlatan didn’t jerk his arm away.
Paolo drew his other arm in and lifted himself onto its elbow so he had a little space between him and the table. He kept his head down, resting it on his forehead, and pulled at Zlatan’s hand. It resisted, then gave and Paolo dragged it up his chest, breathing in very slowly. When they neared his throat he rolled up a little more, and then he teased his thumb beneath two of Zlatan’s fingers so they crooked out of the fist. He let them hook into the top of his collar before settling back, their nails rubbing at his Adam’s apple.
“If you don’t want this, then what kind of compensation do you mean to get?” Paolo quietly asked.
The fingers curled down, pulling his collar away, and then the sides of that dragged apart from each other as the fastening at the top was undone. Zlatan slipped his thumb beneath the doublet, then slid it down to the next tie; his nail was chipped and the sharp edges of it pressed through the thin fabric of Paolo’s shirt before the warmth of a trailing finger smoothed away the slight sting. He leaned on Paolo again, and then his mouth was wet against Paolo’s skin, just behind the ear. “Who said I didn’t want it?”
Paolo stiffened and in reply Zlatan fixed his teeth into the spot, and curved his free hand over the wrist Paolo had on the table like a manacle. His other hand pushed more insistently against Paolo’s belly, its fingers spreading flat before he undid the next fastening. He crowded Paolo closer against the table and Paolo began to speak, but then Zlatan abruptly skipped the last tie and slipped his hand between Paolo’s legs, its cupping pressure much more precise than the rough grind of the table’s edge. So instead a long, groaning noise came from Paolo’s mouth, and he arched into the bite of Zlatan’s teeth and the clever prodding of Zlatan’s fingers.
His hands slipped on the table and for a dizzy moment he thought he was going to fall, and so he was scrabbling to dig in his nails even as Zlatan shoved him back up, both hands now applying themselves to loosening Paolo’s clothes. The cooler air of the room suddenly tickled skin flushing with hot blood and Paolo shivered violently, twisting one shoulder out of his doublet. Then he jerked again as Zlatan pressed a callused finger to the side of his prick, as Zlatan’s mouth dragged down the side of his neck. His doublet shuddered further down his back, yanking at his elbows so for a disorienting moment he thought there were four hands on him.
He muffled his moans into the wood beneath him and pushed his arms out to either side of him, trying to get rid of the restricting cloth, but Zlatan was mouthing at his shoulder now, wetting the shirt against Paolo’s skin, and Paolo couldn’t hold his thoughts together long enough. He pulled himself against the table and the doublet bunched up, forcing his arms in to his sides; the unsmoothed wood of the table scratched through his shirt till his nipples were so raw the graze of linen against it was like being seared with a hot poker, but he couldn’t will himself to stop.
Zlatan was shifting more roughly against Paolo’s hips now, hands alternating their jerks down Paolo’s prick as if that were a line he could use to haul the sense out of Paolo. He was chewing at the top of Paolo’s shoulder, breathing in short harsh bursts, and then he turned one hand further back and Paolo pushed up to allow it room, but the tangle of clothes about their hips was in the way. Paolo reached back without thinking and clawed at that, and his nails scored across Zlatan’s arm, and the next he knew his shoulder to elbow was spasming in pain.
He gasped and jerked up, but Zlatan didn’t let his arm untwist from his back. Instead the other man forced Paolo down to the table by it, and the hurt increased unbelievably but it wasn’t only that making Paolo gasp and whine, it wasn’t making Zlatan stop and so Paolo took it, bore up under it when he understood he couldn’t rid himself of it and he found his groans coming all the quicker for it. The urgent singing in his nerves was louder and so he flattened himself against the table so Zlatan would put his hand back where it’d been, would press and push with his damp fingers till—
--it hurt. It’d been years, years and years and it hurt, straining and scraping till Zlatan’s hand went away and Zlatan cursed in a thick voice before he hawked deep in his throat and something splattered against something else. Then his fingers came back, wetter this time, and it still hurt but the pain was blurring, spreading into the ache in Paolo’s arm and the heavy drag in his groin, and it was all the same and he wanted this, he did want this because it hurt and it made him know that, and so he couldn’t pretend otherwise. He could only try and embrace it, force himself through it, and then Zlatan’s hands dropped to his hips and the other man was shoving at Paolo as well, making him go forward and forward and forward into the agonizing, wonderful, awful white center of it all till suddenly…he was through.
Though he hardly knew it, so brutal was the passage. For some immeasurable amount of time, he simply lay limply where he’d been left, accompanied by nothing more than the slowing beat of his heart.
Paolo was cold when he finally did come back to himself, body aching all over and mouth full of a thick, cottony taste. He moved slightly and his eyes snapped shut, then were only slowly willed open as the pain subsided. He didn’t see Zlatan, or hear him or feel him, and he was about to haul himself onto his arms, a strange feeling of alarm chilling him even more, when something touched the inside of his left thigh. He flinched, then gaped soundlessly as a fire seemed to engulf the whole lower half of his body.
“Shit. You’re bleeding.” Zlatan’s tone was very different from the previous night, pitching higher than usual in shock. He hissed and his feet kicked about the floor, coming and going and then coming again. “Shit.”
Somehow Paolo locked his knees so he could put some weight on his feet. Every inch of his body protested again as he twisted onto his hip, but he was accustoming himself to that and so he didn’t come so close to fainting this time. After bracing himself on his arm, he gingerly reached down and wiped at his thighs, then looked at his fingers. Then he felt further back and grimaced, but…he jerked his head up just as Zlatan’s hand fell on the door-knob. “Where are you going?”
“To get Senderos,” Zlatan said. His eyes were wide, but they narrowed as Paolo looked at him, as if protecting themselves from the glare of the noonday sun. He hunched back, absently scrubbing his hand on his hip so hard that his palm was turning red.
Paolo stared blankly at him, but then Zlatan reached for the door again and the shards of Paolo’s sense forced themselves together. “Don’t!”
“What?” Zlatan jerked his hand off the knob, then put it back. Then he leaned heavily against the door and stared back. “What?”
“I don’t—I’m fine.” Trying to push himself into a standing position unlocked Paolo’s knees and he slumped precipitously back against the table. He didn’t look at Zlatan again till the flush in his face had begun to fade. “I don’t need a doctor.”
“You’re bleeding,” Zlatan repeated. He was a little calmer, but still looked ready to bolt at the slightest movement. “And you’re not Christ—”
“I know. We went over that already.” The moment of irritation briefly made Paolo feel as if he understood, but then he glanced at Zlatan again and he knew he didn’t. He had no idea—no, he had a clear idea of what was disturbing the other man, but he didn’t know why Zlatan would find it disturbing. But nevertheless the last thing Paolo wanted now was a conversation with Senderos, and so he endeavored to—not think about the fact that he was trying to reassure Zlatan. “I was bleeding. I’m not now, and it wasn’t much. I’m fine. That just…happens sometimes, with the way it…happened just now.”
Zlatan relaxed, and as Paolo stammered over acknowledging what had led up to now, he even began to look amused. Much to Paolo’s relief, he let go of the door-knob. “You liked that. You put up such a fight about getting told the truth, and then you lick it up when somebody finally just slaps it in your face.”
Paolo flinched and looked down. Then he started to reply with all the anger he could muster, but that unexpectedly drained away and he forgot the end of his remark before he’d even finished saying the first word of it. He dropped further over the table, leaning on his arms till he could nearly rest his head on them.
He ignored the soft tread of Zlatan’s approach, but jerked and nearly fell when he felt something against his thigh again. Then he looked up, and found Zlatan warily standing off, all the humor closed out of his face. The other man flicked opaque eyes up and down Paolo before tossing a wet rag onto the table.
After a moment’s hesitation, Paolo picked it up and, moving as slowly as he could, cleaned himself off. He had to stop and force himself to breathe deeply more than once, but Zlatan remained where he was. And then he moved away and attended to himself while Paolo stumbled across the room to fall gratefully on the bed.
For quite a while Paolo just lay where he’d fallen, but eventually the chilliness of the room made him pull his legs up onto the mattress. Then he ran out of strength, and no matter how he castigated himself for the indecency, couldn’t manage to cover himself with the sheet, or even push the tails of his shirt down.
He tensed at the sound of footsteps, but Zlatan merely stopped by the side of the bed and gazed down at Paolo, his face still emotionless. Then he stooped and twitched the blanket over Paolo. In the same motion he pivoted on his heel.
“Wait,” Paolo said. He kneaded at the edge of the sheet, trying to rid his palms of the clamminess spreading over them.
Zlatan turned back, then bent down with obvious reluctance. He rested one hand on the bed while slowly lifting the other one to Paolo’s face. His fingertips skated over Paolo’s cheek and Paolo stilled, staring hard at him. Then Paolo began to go on, but Zlatan abruptly flicked his hand about to mockingly tap the underside of Paolo’s chin. He grinned and moved away, shaking his head.
“One fuck doesn’t mean I’m in love with you. You want to live, you’re still going to have to figure out how to get that yourself,” he snorted. He went to the window and opened the shutters, then dragged over a chair and flopped into it with insouciant grace.
The moon was out tonight and in its silver light, the whiteness of his teeth seemed too bright for them to be real. At the very least they were too bright for the darkness of his eyes, and the heavy slope of his shoulders towards the shadows.
Paolo watched him watch the moon, but for once it was easy to turn his own thoughts in other directions. He didn’t quite understand Zlatan, and there were so many other things in his life that he couldn’t encompass with reason alone, but there were a few things he did know. And he could start again with them.
A simple enough idea, he thought, and the self-disgust flared as he let his head come to rest on the pillow, but he managed to push that away this time. He was slower than he should be, and too selfish, and too blind at times, but he had finally recognized all of that in full and strangely, he felt better for it. At the very least, he could think around his faults now.
He’d been about to thank Zlatan when the other man had interrupted, and with almost too much derision. Not such a finely calculated insult as Zlatan could usually be depended on to provide, and so perhaps there was something in that.
* * *
Larsson looked up once, then returned to the broken bridle laid across his lap. Christian was across the room, watching the wet-nurse carefully lay Daniel back in the cradle, and so he missed Paolo’s entrance. But Adriana didn’t and as she looked at him, her eyes widened and the blood drained from her face. She looked only at him, though the wet-nurse made a good deal of noise in leaving the room.
He sat down as carefully as he could on the side of the bed, but a sudden lancing pain deep in his gut made him shift his weight sharply onto one hip. His balance couldn’t keep up and he nearly fell across Adriana’s lap before he caught himself on the headboard. Paolo tightened his grip on the wood and stayed where he was, bent over her, till his breathing regulated itself again. Then he started to lift his head, but he saw her hands reaching and he stopped.
They came up to curve around the sides of his face, cool smooth fingers gently brushing away the hair before cupping gently over his jaw. He couldn’t help but close his eyes, sighing a little, and Adriana stroked his cheek and then touched further back, behind his ear. Light as her fingertips were, it still felt as if a heated needle had been plunged into his flesh.
Her hands dropped at his flinch, but then rose again to curl cautiously about the raw spot. He let her pull his head onto her breast, then twisted a little so he could press his mouth to that and despite the layers of cloth between them, a trace of her body’s warmth filtered up to him. Then he rested his head there and moved his arm so his elbow wasn’t pushing uncomfortably into her side.
“Every night you leave and I wonder if in the morning I’ll still have a husband,” Adriana whispered. Her breath stirred the strands at the back of his head like a frightened caress. “I try to sleep so I’ll be well enough to see to my own sons, but it’s hard not to think of all the things that might be happening to you. And there are so many—it’d be easier if I knew of only one or two, however horrible those might be. The worst part is—I don’t know, Paolo. I don’t know what to fear.”
The wrench in his chest was echoed in the tight squeezing of his eyes, till red spots bloomed against the blackness of his eyelids. He made himself breathe and the tension loosened a little, and then he opened his eyes. “I’ve wronged you. I owe you so much more than simple apologies, but all I have to give is…is nothing good.”
“I don’t like fighting with you, and especially now, when I don’t know how much longer I’ll have with you.” Adriana bent a little so some of her hair slipped down to coil over Paolo’s neck. “I’m your wife. Whatever you have is all I want.”
Paolo sucked in a breath, closing his eyes again. He lifted his hand to wrap it loosely around Adriana’s wrist, and when he felt her arm move he slipped his fingers higher, so they could twine in hers. “What you see—I’ve consented to. There aren’t many choices—Zlatan doesn’t provide many, but I still have some and I’m picking from between them. He doesn’t…there’s a point where he stops forcing. He pushes me to it, but after that I’m…it’s of my own will.”
“I don’t…think I understand,” Adriana said, but the sudden strain in her voice belied her words.
“It’s not easy for me to—no, I understand it. I hate admitting it.” For a moment Paolo wanted to seize her hand and hold it to him as tightly as he could, but that would have been unfair and unkind. So he kept his grip loose, allowing her to stay or withdraw as she pleased. “I was brought up to be a certain way, and now that way doesn’t let me…if I act according to it, we have no chance. We’ll be caught and killed like the rest of my family. To survive I have to act in a way that’s…improper, in comparison, but it’s difficult for me to change so—I have to force it.”
Her fingers were tense and cold within his, but for now they weren’t moving. “You speak as if you’ve control of what’s going on.”
“I don’t. That’s the problem. I have to work within restrictions and I need—to accept that, to concentrate on what I can do. It’s not what I’m used to and sometimes I can’t swallow it, and then I have to…be made to, because I can’t think otherwise.” Paolo paused, trying to choose better words. He could feel Adriana stiffening against him and the spread of tension through her was echoed in the creeping cold in him. “But I find—I’m surprised to find—that there’s a side of me that can swallow it, that is…comfortable enough with the limitations to think within them. I fight it as much as I rely on it, but it’s there.”
“Then you’re not simply accepting this, you’re saying. I think.” Adriana’s voice had turned flat and toneless. “To some extent you’re inviting it.”
“I have to, in order to see to our survival.” After a moment, Paolo didn’t suppress the rest of the thought. He breathed in her smell, savoring the sweet familiarity of it, before bracing himself. “But yes, I want it as well. I want to live. I want whatever it is that keeps me living.”
She drew in a quick breath, and her hair rustled over the back of his neck as she moved her head. Away, he thought, and his fingers twitched around her hand before he made them stiff again. He had woken from his nightmares feeling as if the blood in his veins had been replaced with ice-water, but the chill in him now was worse, for he was fully aware of it and couldn’t shake it away as a mere figment of his imagination.
“It’s not just the body—keeping air moving in your lungs and the pulse beating in your wrist, is it? When you talk about living?” Adriana finally said. When Paolo nodded, she made a thin, uneven noise between her teeth.
Then she twisted beneath him, and for an awful moment he thought—but her fingers closed around his own again, and she pressed her other hand up against his cheek as her face buried itself in his hair. He went slack with sudden, overwhelming relief and the breath he’d unknowingly been holding burst out from his nose and his mouth, and so loudly that he nearly missed her next words.
“Well, I want you to live too—I want to know you’ll come back to us. If you do, if I have that much, then your leaving isn’t so terrible a thing.” She breathed raggedly, as if the torrent of words had taken all the strength from her, and her head rested on Paolo’s instead of him lying on her.
The aches in his body had hardly lessened, but he ignored their demands and held up under her till she regained herself. It was so much less than the least he could do, but it was what he was able to do and so he didn’t shrink from it.
Eventually she lifted her head, and Paolo did not immediately go still and cold for her hands stayed against him. They followed him when he pushed his head to her shoulder, both to ease the weight on her and to allow him to see her face. Adriana was wiping at her eyes, but those were clear and the line of her jaw was firm. “Or what you do when you’re not with us,” she said slowly. “I can’t make myself like it, Paolo, but I don’t love you any less for it.”
“I wouldn’t ever ask you to force that.” Paolo kissed the side of her mouth, and felt her turn towards him. “I’m too grateful just to have kept your esteem.”
A little reproach flashed through her eyes, but she refrained from giving voice to it. Instead she gazed at him, her expression growing pensive. “It…this is new to you? You weren’t this way before, with…”
It took a moment for Paolo to follow her thought, and then he couldn’t hide how startled he was. “No, no—I…” he took a breath “…with Sandro it was wonderful. I loved him, in a way I haven’t again till with you.”
“You’re lying,” Adriana said. Her eyes darkened slightly and the lightness of her tone didn’t hide the edge in it. “You still love him.”
“It doesn’t diminish my love for you, and that’s not a lie,” Paolo said, raising himself. Then he grimaced and fell back against the headboard.
Concern instantly replaced everything else on Adriana’s face. She reached for him, hesitated, and then firmly curled her hand around his shoulder and drew his head back down to her breast.
“Nothing I do, or will do, can do that,” Paolo added quietly. He remained stiff for several moments, even though Adriana’s fingers were now gently combing through his hair, and only relaxed when he felt her hand drop to lie across his neck.
“I know. Even if I worry sometimes, and wonder.” Adriana sighed and sank back against the pillows. Her voice dropped even lower. “I’d like…sometime, to know more about him. If he was that great a part of your life, then I have to think that in loving you I’ve already grown fond of him, without realizing.”
Paolo looked up at her, then pulled her hand to his lips. “I would—”
They both started, and then Paolo nearly wrenched himself into a faint in turning to look at the owner of that small, uncertain voice. He’d forgotten about Christian again, and so he rightly deserved the pain lancing through him. “I’m sorry, Christian. I haven’t said good morning to you yet.”
“I saw you and Mother talking, so I just looked to see that the lady didn’t get Daniel’s blanket all twisted like yesterday,” Christian said. He took a hesitant step forward, as nervous as if he’d broken something and expected a scolding. “Are you done?”
“Yes, but your father’s very tired, so mind that.” Adriana sat up and waved the boy over even as she warned him, and he flew to her, then turned to scramble onto Paolo’s knee.
Paolo summoned all his will to not wince, and instead embraced the boy. Then he settled back against the pillows besides Adriana, letting her take some of Christian’s weight. She exclaimed at something, then began to rebuke the boy. Only half-listening, Paolo glanced at Larsson, belatedly remembering him as well, and then decided not to care about the other man’s presence. He leaned over and kissed Adriana’s ear. “I’ll tell you later, if you ask again.”
She paused, then nodded and resumed her light scolding of Christian’s dirty hands. But her tone gentled, and when he earnestly swore he didn’t know how that had happened, she simply pulled him to her and kissed his cheeks. Paolo smiled at them both, and for a while he hardly felt any hurt.
* * *
At the end of the day, Zlatan didn’t come to see Paolo down the hall. Instead Materazzi did that, and when Paolo diffidently asked him for a bucket of water and soap, the other man didn’t seem to find anything odd about the request. He simply brought the things up and then locked Paolo in the room.
The servants had freshened the bed and there were plenty of sheets piled on it, so Paolo borrowed one to use as a towel. His bruises had stiffened a good deal, and the cold water only exacerbated that, but he did enjoy the feeling of clean skin. Once he’d gotten all the dirt and sweat rinsed out of his hair, he also was pleased to find that the itching of his scalp went with that; he’d been beginning to fear he had picked up an infestation of lice there. In contrast, his clothing didn’t improve from having water dabbed at the stains, and when he finally spread them over the table to look at the damage, he was rather surprised that they hadn’t fallen to pieces long before.
He was still looking at them when he heard the creaking of hinges. Paolo started, yanking the sheet more closely around himself, and as Zlatan came in, he shifted instinctively behind the table. Then he stopped, pursing his lips, and lifted his head to meet the other man’s incredulous gaze.
Zlatan shut the door without looking, then came closer. He had a whole candelabra in his hand and he kept raising and lowering it so the shadows flickered dizzyingly around them. His hair was damp: he’d scrubbed himself over already, possibly somewhere else in the inn or perhaps even outside, though the weather turned colder every day. “What are you doing?”
“I want my sons to grow up in Milan,” Paolo said. A fold of the sheet slipped down his side and he looked at it as he bunched the cloth back into his hand. “I want to see Milan start to grow again, instead of being bled over and over by wars that glorify a single family and not the city itself.”
The floorboard beneath Paolo’s right foot twisted up and he dropped his gaze to that. Then he looked a little forward and saw the scuffed toe of Zlatan’s boot, the scrapes over the leather very white in the yellow candlelight.
“You’re in Ticino, and that’s still too close.” More of Zlatan’s other boot stepped into Paolo’s sight. “If you ever want to take a walk in Milan that isn’t just a stroll to the nearest hanging spot, you have to kick out the Sforzas first.”
Paolo looked up, and found no humor in Zlatan’s face. He met that piercing gaze levelly, though all over him, even beneath the sheet, his skin was prickling. “I can’t just kick them out. They were condottieres to begin with and they could always raise an army again. They have to be dead before it’d be safe for my family.”
Zlatan arched his brows and peeled his lips back from his teeth, but the curve of his mouth couldn’t be called a smile. “Oh, you’ve turned bloodthirsty.”
“I’m not. If I wanted what sat well with my stomach, I’d run,” Paolo said. His fingers twisted in the sheet till the edge of it began to cut into his skin, and then he noticed and loosened his grip. “But running means never sleeping again, and nobody can live long like that.”
“And you want to live.” Skepticism heavily colored Zlatan’s tone. He took another step, so the heat from the candelabra began to warm Paolo’s arm, before setting that on the table. Then he moved forward again, close enough for the protruding hilt of his sword to graze the folds draping Paolo’s hip.
If Paolo wanted to look directly at the other man, he’d have to lift his chin more and possibly sweep the tip of his nose over part of Zlatan’s cheek. He hesitated and Zlatan leaned in till that was no longer a choice, and so Paolo kept his head turned. “Yes, I do.”
Fingers dug into the side of his jaw and the top of his throat and Paolo sucked in a little air. Then he stilled, staring at the candle closest to him as Zlatan’s thumb passed over the point of his jaw, then prodded into the raw sore behind his ear. It twisted into the spot, the nail catching and then lifting a scab, and Paolo finally had to wince, but he tried not to move any more than that.
Zlatan abruptly released him and half-turned, then took up a perch on the edge of the table so violently that Paolo had to grab the candelabra to keep it from falling over. The heavy brass bit into his hand and he pulled away as soon as he could, then looked at his palm: angry red marks made new lines over it, but it seemed that the skin hadn’t broken to permanently rewrite the wrinkles there.
“They have a pretty good army right now. You’d have to have one too, if you want to do that,” Zlatan said. “And a damn good general to lead them.”
“I know,” Paolo sharply replied. He rubbed his hand over his thigh. “I know I need you. I’m not wholly without a sense of the situation and I’ll admit to that freely. You don’t have to taunt me with it.”
For a moment it looked as if Zlatan were going to laugh again, but instead he merely snorted. He fiddled with the buckle of his sword-belt, then pulled that off his waist so he could swing the sword between his knees, like a fidgeting shepherd-boy with his crook. “Well, it’s not like you can pay for the men, so what else am I going to get out of this?” He glanced up, his eyes glinting, and then smiled rather strangely at the hilt sticking out of his fingers. It was mocking, but the mockery was aimed at an inanimate object, as far as Paolo could see—and Paolo couldn’t see Zlatan’s eyes right now. “This thing’s over a hundred years old, some Venetian cunt told me once. He wanted to buy it off me and stick it on his wall, and when I said no he was almost shitting himself, he was so mad. But that old and it never chips…it’s a good blade. It’s not going to come that cheap.”
Paolo bit at his lip and stared at the floor for a long while. He closed his eyes, then opened them. Then he spoke, and his throat was half-closed so the words came out in barely a whisper, but they came nevertheless. “I know.”
“That why you washed up for me?” Now Zlatan did laugh, loud and jeering, and when Paolo jerked up his head, the other man already had a hand tangling in Paolo’s hair, twisting a curl around his thumb. He yanked, then let the strands spring back. Then he laughed again, a little softer, when Paolo roughly pushed the lock of hair out of his face. “Christ. You remember I fucked you yesterday, right? When you smelled like a heap of shit and tasted like chewing on a dirty block of salt? You still had some blood on your collar, from when you hit me the other night.”
“And you didn’t like it much, did you?” Paolo snapped.
He saw a blur between them and then he was dragged up between Zlatan’s knees, the wolves’ heads of the hilt biting through the sheet into his belly and the long scabbard pressing into his groin. The clench in his throat came from the hand Zlatan had wrapped around it, and the heat in his face from the other man’s breath steaming into it.
“Am I going to like this better?” Zlatan asked, voice soft as lamb’s wool. His teeth gleamed at the edge of Paolo’s sight. “You’re a lousy whore, Paolo.”
Then he jerked Paolo forward the last inch, and his mouth was merciless in its demands. He forced Paolo to welcome his tongue, and then he used that to lay claim to the whole inside of Paolo’s mouth. Paolo slid against Zlatan’s right knee, then stumbled up only to lose his footing again as the other man roughly yanked the sword from between them. The trailing end of his belt ripped some of the sheet from Paolo’s hand and Paolo grabbed blindly at it, but could only trap it at his waist.
Then he let it slip further as Zlatan shoved them back, away from the table. He trod on a corner of the sheet and had to drop a handful to seize Zlatan’s arm, or else be strangled as he dangled from the other man’s grip. And he had no time to regain the lost folds, for Zlatan pushed on without pause till the edge of the bed struck Paolo in the backs of the knees. The joints buckled and he sat down hard, and a streak of pain went up his spine so violently that his sight went black.
But teeth pinching his lower lip kept him from completely losing consciousness; he was aware but little else as Zlatan pulled them fully onto the bed, splaying his hands over Paolo’s chest. Paolo’s flinch as the other man’s callused fingers rasped over his stomach, dragging more of the sheet from him, was the first he knew of his returning mobility. Then the cloth was slipping over his prick and he bucked up, smashing his lip into the tip of Zlatan’s canine.
He put his hands against Zlatan’s shoulders, and Zlatan brushed two fingers up the crease of his thigh, just drifting over the sore flesh till his nails were tickling at the back of Paolo’s balls. Paolo dropped his hands to stab his nails into the bed, and his head fell back as well, and Zlatan immediately pressed his face into Paolo’s throat, his mouth roughly searching till he’d found the scabbed bite. Then he sucked at it, hard and not soothing, while his hands stroked the bruises on Paolo’s hips and thighs and buttocks.
It did hurt. It made Paolo hiss and swear and jerk as he stared at the white spots dancing across the dark room, but as it went curiously on, he became aware of the oddness in the probing. The fingers pushed but instead of remaining to tease out the pain, they retreated once he’d winced. And sometimes they then smoothed back over the soreness, almost as if to erase it. And though the edge of the pain was beginning to blur into a different heat for Paolo, though his rising prick betrayed that fact quite clearly, Zlatan still pulled his hands back. Too soon now, too teasing—Paolo twisted his head into the pillow, chewing at it in desperation, and then blindly shoved down his hand. He grazed the top of Zlatan’s right hand, then shoved hard at it.
A moment later his wrist was bearing most of Zlatan’s weight, crushed into the mattress by his hip, and he was writhing under the white spark of agony in his shoulder, where Zlatan’s teeth were tearing at his flesh. He dimly sensed the other man moving about above him, at one point leaning so far over the side of the bed that Paolo could almost free his wrist—but then Zlatan’s weight shifted back, and was almost too much before it abruptly lessened, leaving Paolo limp with the stinging of all the blood rushing back into his limbs.
He felt something being dripped up his thigh and he started to raise one knee before Zlatan violently knocked it up, nearly into Paolo’s shoulder. Then Zlatan was pressing his tongue into the place he’d bitten, and his fingers were in Paolo at the same moment. Paolo arched, his leg jerking downwards before it was stopped by Zlatan’s shoulder. He kicked the other man in the back without being able to help it, but Zlatan didn’t seem to notice. Unless his reply was in the impatient pushing and stretching his fingers did to Paolo’s body, the hard nudge of his knuckles, the scrape of his cracked nails.
It was gentler this time, but only just. It still was him fucking Paolo, making the blood burn up beneath Paolo’s skin and then burn out to leave behind the aching blue-black bruises as ash. And it still was Paolo letting himself be fucked, letting himself fall into the blazing heat of it and then gutter out into grey cinders, sore and exhausted and cold.
The sheets retained some warmth from the fury of their coupling, and when he was able he curled into them. The insides of his thighs stuck together, but he ignored that. And he closed his eyes as well, finding even the candlelight too bright for him. It still pressed against his eyelids, streaking faint reddish shadows over the backs of them, but at the moment that suited him better.
“I’ve got a couple offers, for next spring,” Zlatan said. He’d gotten up off Paolo, but he didn’t go any further than the edge of the bed. “Venice, Ferrara. Siena. I need money and I need more men. I could use some artillery, too.”
Paolo cracked open an eye, and glimpsed something whitish. He fully opened his eyes and found that Zlatan had stripped off his jacket and was in only his shirt, the linen sticking in long translucent strips against his back. Segments of the scars there barred those, rising in pebbled ridges against the cloth. “Artillery?”
“You know, for sieges? Which would be a better way to get money, since then I’m not waiting around in some lord’s boot-room to get paid.” Zlatan twisted to look at Paolo, absently sweeping the hair from his forehead. “I hope you don’t think you’re getting Milan back tomorrow.”
“I don’t.” Paolo paused, thinking. “If you want artillery, then Ferrara. But the d’Estes know the value of what they have, and guard their cannon close and their engineers even closer.”
“Well, I think their engineers might find that a little overbearing, once they’ve met Zlatan,” Zlatan said, grinning. Then the grin flashed away and he flinched before hitting Paolo’s hand away from his back. “Why do you keep doing that?”
After a moment, Paolo simply put his hand down. A chilly breeze passed over him and he hitched up his knees, then reached out to pull at the sheets. But his muscles were still too strung out, and so he only got a corner over his hip.
Zlatan tipped his head, staring expressionlessly at Paolo. Then he leaned over and twitched off the sheet, only to push it between Paolo’s legs to wipe the mess away from there. He looked the stains over with a carefulness that Paolo found odd till he remembered the previous night, then bundled up the fouled sheet and tossed it on the floor. Then he flipped another one up and over Paolo. “You know, you can’t take your family there. I’m not hauling them around on campaign with me.”
But Paolo would have to go with him, went unspoken. Paolo pressed his head back into the pillow, concentrating on his breathing. The first breath was strangled, the second painful and the third almost normal. “I won’t leave Adriana till Philippe says she’s well enough for that. And if they aren’t safe, I can’t do this.”
“They’ll be safe,” Zlatan said. He didn’t smile or raise his brows or bare his teeth when Paolo looked at him this time. “They will.”
“All right,” Paolo murmured after a moment. He squeezed his eyes shut, as long as he could bear the pressure, and then he relaxed. But he kept his eyes closed, and though he could still hear Zlatan moving about, he made himself pay no attention to it. He still had too much else to think about, and too little time.
* * *
“I can’t act like I’m blind. As a doctor—as somebody who tries to keep people from getting ill—” Philippe stammered. He slapped more than tipped the bottle onto the rag so a gush of liquid spurted off the cloth and dripped onto the floor. Then he shoved it at Paolo and only jerked his hand short when Paolo flinched back.
For a moment they looked at each other, the color mounting in Senderos’ cheeks and the strength of his emotion making his shoulders shake. Then Paolo carefully took the cloth from him, and after pulling his shirt down so the collar hung open, pushed the rag inside. Whatever it was that Philippe had poured onto it, the stuff stung badly when it touched the scraping cuts on Paolo’s shoulder. But he gritted his teeth and waited, and soon it was soothingly cool instead.
“You’re a soldier, too,” he said gently.
Philippe dropped his head, then twisted about to clank bottles around over the table. “Because I have to be. Doctors become witches whenever the harvest is bad or anything like that, but soldiers…they’re always in demand. Look, I know I don’t know much, but…”
“I’m acting after careful consideration of what I know. Your concern is appreciated, but it’s not helpful.” Paolo pushed the rag up his neck and behind his ear. He hissed air in through his teeth, held it, and then slowly exhaled. Then he looked at Philippe again, at the man’s stricken expression, and he regretted ever having a moment of doubt about him. He’d long since done the same about Adriana, but…Paolo sighed. “I’ll survive what you see. It’s not much, compared to what could be happening to me and my family.”
A spasm went through Philippe. He forced himself still, then put down the bottle and stopper in his hands with slow deliberation. “Zlatan talked to me earlier about your family. He wants to know—I have friends in Grisons. The head abbot of a monastery…he wants to know if I’ll stay with your wife and sons there. Look after them.”
“What did you say?” Paolo asked, startled.
“I said I didn’t know.” Philippe flushed again, head bowed and fingers nervously tapping against the table. “I thought you wouldn’t want me near your wife again, after…”
Paolo grimaced, and this time it wasn’t from pain. “I talked to Adriana about that. I’m sorry, by the way…you’ve been extraordinarily kind to us, and with little compensation.”
“If Zlatan pays me what he says he will, I’d be able to give up soldiering,” Philippe softly said. He shut his eyes and pushed at his nose as if he had a headache building up behind it. “But I can’t…I don’t know what you’re doing, I don’t understand it and I don’t think I want to. I can’t watch it.”
“I won’t be staying with them. I can’t. I have to—” Paolo stopped at Philippe’s wince. He waited a few moments, and slowly the other man looked at him. Then he went on. “I believe that you won’t hurt my family, and that you’ll look after them well. I’d like you to stay with them, but I can only ask.”
Philippe looked away, then back at Paolo. Then he made a low, frustrated noise in his throat, almost a growl, and pressed his hands to his face. His shoulders jerked up, wavered, and then slumped and he pulled his hands away. “I don’t know how long I can stay. The way Zlatan talked about it, he doesn’t mean to keep them there for long. He says you’re all moving about…”
“It’s safer for us that way, and…and I don’t mean to let my children grow up in Switzerland,” Paolo slowly said. “I mean no disrespect towards your country.”
“I didn’t think you did.” For a while Philippe looked at his hands. Then he jerked his head up and to the side, and turned back to the bottles on the table, and Paolo knew the other man had given in. “I don’t know how long I can stay.”
“However long it is, you have my deepest thanks. I wish I could offer more,” Paolo replied.
The other man went still. Then he gave himself a shake, and began to pour something else out onto another piece of cloth. “I don’t want to know who you are. I don’t want to know any more about this, all right? I just…please look after yourself.”
“I am.” And Paolo meant that as much as he did his gratitude.
* * *
The first night away from Adriana and the boys, Paolo stayed up as long as he could, distracting himself with the amazingly detailed maps Zlatan had produced from nowhere. Then he let Zlatan provoke him into snapping back, so the other man would force him to bed. And then he laid there, completely exhausted but still awake and staring till Zlatan came to sit by him.
“They’re fine,” Zlatan said, flicking his fingers up beneath Paolo’s chin. “Senderos isn’t bad when he’s not chewing his nails down. And I told you, I’ll even let your wife send you letters. So if those stop coming, then something’s wrong and I have a lot of monks to kill.”
Paolo pulled his head away, then turned over to look at the ceiling. He still had difficulty in comprehending Zlatan’s meaning and at this stage, he doubted whether he would ever fully understand the man. And of course Zlatan’s constant flippancy hardly helped. “That’s sacrilege.”
“Like all your praying’s really helped you.” Zlatan leaned over, peering closer at Paolo. Then he rolled his eyes and made to move away, apparently giving up for the night.
Paolo reached up towards Zlatan’s jaw, towards a raw red scrape there that he didn’t remember seeing before Zlatan had shoved him onto the mattress, and Zlatan froze. Then his eyes widened and he smacked Paolo’s hand so hard that when Paolo pressed it against his chest, it was still hot from the blow.
“Stop doing that,” Zlatan snarled.
“Why?” Paolo asked blankly, without thinking.
For a long time, Zlatan simply stared at him, and eventually Paolo discerned that the silence was caused by…by a lack of words, and not by any sense of restraint. Then Zlatan snorted, and a thick film of scorn dropped over his eyes. “Because I don’t like it, and it doesn’t mean anything anyway. You only ever do that after I’ve fucked you—you don’t like me any more than you did before, and faking it doesn’t work with me.”
“It’s old habit, formed with someone else,” Paolo said after a moment. “I’ll try to break it.”
“If it helps, I’ll break your hand next time.” Then Zlatan got up and stalked across the room, his back stiff with anger. He rattled the windowsill as he slapped his hands down onto the rickety piece of wood, then slouched against the wall as he stared out at the night sky.
Paolo turned over, still cradling his hand to himself, and tucked his head down. He didn’t close his eyes; he doubted sleep would come tonight, but it would eventually return. His fears were all in the daylight now, bold and real but where he could see them straight on, and so there wasn’t anything for him to do at night but wait.