Of Dons and Assassins
"Be quiet, sweetheart. Don't make a sound".
My mother came to my room in the middle of the night when I was ten years old and told me to dress quickly and quietly. She had already woken my two younger sisters, Sofia and Anna, who stood in dull smocks at the foot of my bed, hand in hand, bundles of their clothes in their arms. Everyone was silent and, as the new bruising on my mother's face was revealed to me in the golden light of the lamp she held over my pillow, I understood what had happened. I knew that I had to be silent, that I had to pick my way across the floor without stepping on the loose board, that I had to drag on my shirt and trousers in the unsteady light of the oil lamp. This had happened before.
We crept down the rickety staircase in the dark, moving slowly and carefully to avoid the creaking steps, my mother in front with the girls tiptoeing behind her. I brought up the rear, still forcing my dreams away, gripping tightly to the banister in case I should lose my footing and fall. As I moved, I kept straining to hear the sounds of fury as my father awoke and found we were gone, but there was nothing. The air of a tomb fell over the house. For a moment, padding after my mother in bare feet on the stairs, my boots in my hand, I dared to hope that, this time, we had succeeded.
"Cyllian bitch!" The shadow exploded from the hallway at the foot of the stairs and struck my mother across the face before any of us could react to it. One of my sisters screamed and they both scuttled back up the stairs, clasping each other in their arms. I stood frozen, helpless as my father drove his iron-shod boots into my crouching, sobbing mother's sides. "What the hell d'you think you're doing? Taking my own children away from me?"
My mother reached out for his knees, as if to supplicate him, but he snarled and shook her off. She crumpled at his feet, weeping, clutching her head. My father drew himself up to his full height and stepped over her to the foot of the stairs. His eyes met mine in the last light of the fading oil lamp. A great hand fastened itself on the bottom of the banister and one foot thudded down onto the first step. Seeing what he meant to do, my mother roused herself.
"No! Not the children!"
But my father, when drunk or in a rage, was unstoppable. He climbed the stairs slowly towards me, while I stood frozen in his path like a transfixed rabbit. Over his shoulder, I could just make out the shape of my mother struggling onto her feet. The girls had already fled but I stayed, torn between the desire to run away and the feeling that I should be doing something to help my mother. After all, I was the next head of the household. I had to be able to do something!
"Fabrizio, run!" she cried to me from the bottom of the stairs. I saw the dogged determination of my father's steps, hesitated a moment, then threw my boots at him and pounded back up the stairs. There was a window in my room which opened onto a balcony with a wrought-iron balustrade, and if I stood on this I could just reach the roof. I scrambled up, hauling myself by means of the guttering and then the ridge of tiles, eventually coming to a stop behind one of our two looming chimney-stacks.
I had come up here before, when my father was in a temper. He was too big to follow me and could only roar his intent from the little balcony. I could wait until he calmed down and then return. If I judged my arrival properly, he would either be asleep, worn out from his exertions, or only in a mood to give me a clip around the head. If I judged the time wrong, he could still be in a foul temper and I might face some blows. I drew up my knees, huddled on the tiny section of flat roof by the chimney. I dreaded to think of what he was doing to my mother now. My sisters would probably escape, but he was often angry at me when I ran away. He thought that, as his son, I should side with him.
* * * *
My father was a Don. That meant he was a nobleman of some estate, the headsman of a sprawling village in the hills about five miles south of Anderthal. We were a very feudal society, peopled by peasant farmers, ranch owners, blacksmiths and an innkeeper. My father was the supreme lord of the community, treated with awe and respect in deference to our long lineage, which could be traced back twenty generations. Twenty generations of Dons, mistreating their wives, scaring their daughters and resenting their sons. Once we had ruled the countryside from Anderthal to Rhana, but now we had died out through skirmishes with bandits and with the new aristocracy, glorified merchants who thought they should have a say in things. My father hated these new aristos with a passion verging on paranoia.
My mother was a gentlewoman from the Imperial City of Cyllinda. She had met my father as a young girl, the daughter of a judge and said to be descended from the Imperial Family. I don't know exactly what inspired my father to propose to her. Perhaps he wanted to boast of a kinship with royal blood, or maybe he wanted her father's aid in sorting out a territorial dispute, or perhaps he was simply attracted by her generous dowry. Anyway, she became his wife and was trapped in the grim whirlpool of family life, the inescapable chattel of his pleasure. A year after their wedding, I was born.
From my first memories to the last, my childhood was a repetition of the above event. My father didn't actually hurt my mother that often; usually he was too drunk to aim properly and could be waylaid until his drunkenness wore off, when he was less violent and more vindictive. Most of the time I think he was just trying to prove that he was in control. Times were hard for the old Dons. We were losing our power and no longer had the respect we'd once enjoyed. The right to bed any maiden in the village on her wedding night had been taken away. Personally, I believe that was what rankled with my father. His masculinity was proved through frequent conquests of women, whether it was my mother, his mistress or some poor nobody, picked from the track on her way home from the harvest or the tavern. He had bastards littered all over the countryside, but didn't give their mothers a silver bit to help them shoulder the burden.
* * * *
When I was twelve years old, something strange happened in our village. One day, a hot day in summer when the barren wind blew dust off the pampas and got into the eyes of the farmers as they tended the crops, a man appeared. He came from the direction of the city, on foot, walking slowly as if his feet were sore from a long journey. He was dressed all in black in the heat of the day and his face was streaked with rivulets of sweat. His leather boots had cracked and shrunk in the heat, his silk shirt was ripped, his face burned by the sun. The tenants at the edge of the village came running to fetch my father before the man reached our house.
My father was afraid of him. I remember this with surprise, because in my experience my father was never afraid. He threw blows indiscriminately, he had not a gentle word or touch for anyone, yet when he saw the ragged and footsore apparition that appeared on the doorstep, a flicker of something crossed his face. He had ordered my mother, my sisters and myself to stay inside and the women dutifully obeyed, sitting in the dark of the drawing room with the curtains closed. But I, with the natural curiosity of a boy, ran upstairs to my balcony and leaned over to see the figure of the traveller hunched at our gate, and my father's imposing form on the step.
"Señor," the man in black said, his voice faint, "have you some water?"
"We have no water for the likes of you," my father said. Although there was fear in his voice, he was firm. While the gate stood between the man and himself, my father could still be a man. "I want you to get off my land. Get out of this village. We have no time for the likes of you. Your kind bring only trouble. We have no wish for trouble here. Go".
"I beg you, señor". The man fell to his knees in the dust. "I bring no trouble. I am an exile – see!" His finger jabbed at his cheek and my father spat onto the path. "God protects travellers; it is a sacred duty to care for them!" the man cried, but there was a note of helplessness in his voice. My father drew his sword; I heard the hiss of steel and leaned over to see better. He advanced down the steps, towards the gate.
"Get out of this village!" he bellowed, holding the sword with the tip aimed at the man's eyes. The poor traveller hung his head, then struggled onto his feet again. "God given duty!" my father scorned him as he staggered down the dusty street. "What do you and your kind know of God? You are nothing! Godforsaken! We will have nothing to do with you!"
And from the balcony, I watched in amazement as the man hobbled away, the tenants drawing back on each side to let him pass.
They hated him. I could see it plainly, and yet I did not hate him. I didn't know why I should hate him. What had the poor creature done that he should be spurned, refused water and humiliated in the street? So, that afternoon, I crept out from our house with a flask of water and some fruit and I went to look for the man in black.
I found him on the pampas, stretched out beneath a small coppice of dead trees, withered by the heat and lack of moisture. He looked half-dead. At close quarters, I saw that his lips were swollen and cracked by thirst and there was a mark on his cheek. It looked like a scar, but it was black as his clothes, possibly some kind of tattoo. He turned his head to me.
"What are you doing out here, boy? Do you think I'm blind? Why should you wish to help me; I saw you listening to your father from the balcony. I don't want your pity. Leave me be". And his head fell sideways, accepting the inevitability of death, alone, thirsty and stained from his journey. I stood a while, watching him. Then I knelt down, unscrewed the flask and held it out to him. He looked back and his brow creased.
"It's water," I explained. "I brought water for you. I thought he was cruel to refuse you".
The man in black stared at me for a moment and then he snatched the flask as if afraid that I'd reconsider. He drank quickly in great gulps, spilling some down his shirt in the process, while I crouched and watched him curiously. Once he'd finished, he smiled weakly at me.
"Thank you, boy. You're a better son than your father deserves".
I should have stood up for my father. But I found it difficult. Instead I said, "Why did he turn you away? Why did all the people stop and stare at you? And why are you wearing all black in the summer? You should wear a paler colour; you wouldn't be so hot then".
"Blessed Mother!" the man exclaimed with a bitter smile. "An innocent!" He heaved himself up into a sitting position and wiped the last of the water from his lips. "I have to wear black, boy. It's a sign of my trade. All my 'kind', as your father said, wear black. As pawnbrokers have the balls hanging outside their shops, as taverns advertise their names by signs, so we wear black that men may know who we are. And tremble". He sneered, but it wasn't at me. "I'm surprised your father hasn't told you about us before".
"He's never mentioned about men who wear black," I said. "What is your trade?"
A fiendish glint lit his eyes and then he beckoned me closer. "I have been well trained," he confided. "The best have taught me. I have fought hand to hand with the Master Tutor and I have struck the sword from his hand and scattered it away. The Academy has never had anyone like me. I was their best, their most promising. But Luigi, like the arrogant fool he is, hates to have anyone better him. He couldn't stand me".
"What academy?" I asked, confused. "Who's Luigi?"
"The Master Tutor, boy. The man in charge of the Academy in Rhana. He's a formidable opponent, but he's got a weakness. He is proud, but fallible. You must remember that. Those who are proudest always have furthest to fall. And he's no time for anyone but that prating boy of his." His face contorted in jealousy. "Just because Luigi's like a father to him, he indulges him. No one can be better than Francesco. No one can teach him more than Luigi has done. Together, they are invincible. And anyone who poses a threat must be eliminated". His finger jabbed at his cheek again. "Eliminated! Me! I am exiled because I dared to show Luigi that his fighting is flawed, that he has a weakness that could have been fatal. He divides us with his love for this boy! He's not even his real son!"
"I don't know who you're talking about," I said, trying to placate him. His eyes were shining brightly and I thought he might be raving. The sun was uncommonly hot and he'd had no water for a day or so, from the look of him. He lunged out and caught my arm.
"Never trust an assassin!" he said desperately.
"I shan't…" I promised, puzzled.
"Luigi can wear his golden crucifix and pretend that he's more important than he is, and that boy of his can fool himself that he's nothing left to learn, but at the end of the day an assassin has to be more than the sum of his parts. You understand? But Luigi doesn't see that. Because I dared to be more than I am, he sent me away! You must never trust us, boy. Never!"
I wrenched my arm from his grip and ran for home as fast as I could, the flask forgotten. I hadn't even considered that he might be mad and armed. He could have killed me. Maybe that had been his intent. And my father would have lost his only son to a man driven mad by the sun. All this talk of an Academy, of the city of Rhana, of the proud Master Tutor Luigi and his indulged student, it was rubbish surely. Just the ravings of a madman.
And yet, though I strove to feel this, the Academy was something that returned to me time and time again in my youth. It fascinated me. The concept of an academy training assassins, with divisions and pride and favouritism, intrigued me. It was another facet of the city existence I had never known. By the time I learned that it was real, and that everything the man had told me was true, it had become a legend to me.
And, one day, far in the future, it was to become more dear to me than my life itself.
* * * *
Perhaps it was my father's mixture of violence and fear that made me hate him. What is for sure is that, by the age of ten, I understood that he was to be loathed and avoided when the golden liquor made him heavy-handed and unreasonable. By the age of twelve, I was unwilling to let my mother suffer alone and stood up to him on a couple of occasions. I was knocked out of my senses for it, but the attempt made me feel more of a man. If my father were anything like a man himself, my efforts would have impressed him. He should have realised that I was growing up, becoming more responsible, more determined to play an active part in the life of the household. But of course, this didn't cross his mind. In his ale-addled brain, only one thing could make me properly a man.
By the age of fourteen, I still hadn't had my first woman and my father was getting restless. In recent months, he'd pointed out pretty girls as we rode to and from the fields to check on the progress of the sowing and seemed nonplussed when I refused all of them. I was determined not to have my life dictated by him and if that meant choosing where, when and with whom I would lose my virginity, I would refuse every girl he suggested. The point that I didn't actually find any of them sexually attractive didn't cross my mind. I appreciated that they were pretty and assumed that once I chose one, something would miraculously happen to me and prove what my father found so enjoyable about the whole affair. In fact, I was beginning to single out the more likely ones by the beginning of the summer. Something happened, though, late that spring, which soon put quite a different slant on all my aspirations.