Chapter Ten

The Stranger in Black

Playing at being a gang leader gradually lost its appeal.  I'd grown to hate the looks I got from the labourers and artisans when I walked into their taverns of an evening.  It no longer seemed enough to be feared.  My gang of ruffians were quite content to beat the living daylights out of anyone who caused me trouble, but while it gained me a certain measure of respect, it didn't make me any friends.  People avoided me in the street and I slowly started to understand what true social exclusion felt like.  And I hadn't entered into the contract quite knowing what I was doing.  I had hoped that respect would bring friendship, but that wasn't quite how it had worked out. 

One morning, in late spring, exactly a year after I'd been mugged by the sailors and decided to change my life, I woke up with a pounding headache from the previous night's drinking.  I decided that the only way to get rid of it was to go and drink some more.  I couldn't go back to Bianco's, as my actions the night before had started a fight and had probably soured my usually cold reception still further.  Julia had fallen into the habit of serving me with an appalling lack of consideration, because she knew that I never paid for the ale I drank.  It was only a twisted form of nostalgia that kept me from sending Claudio after her, but I'd like to think I also spared her because she was a woman.  Nevertheless, I couldn't face her accusing stares that morning, so I went to another of my regular haunts, a tavern on the eastern side of the city, on the Rhana road.  My entrance was noted with tangible annoyance by the barman, but he didn't dare tell me to go anywhere else.  I left Claudio and his bullies outside; for once, I just wanted to be on my own.

Everyone ignored me once it became clear I didn't want a scene, so I sat down in a dark corner with a tankard and started drinking to clear my head.  I couldn't have felt more wretched.  The other men in the tavern were in here with their friends, talking in low voices and laughing.  I glared at a couple of them in case they were talking about me, but it didn't seem that I was even that important to them.  I scowled and kicked moodily against the table. 

A slight darkening of the interior showed that someone was standing in the light from the doorway.  The murmur of conversation fell into a hostile silence and I glanced up from the tankard to see who had been met with such a negative welcome.  What I saw surprised me.  And brought back the memory of that dream I'd had, of that broken man telling me his bitter story under the glare of the country sun.

The man standing in the doorway came slowly, defiantly, down the steps, catching the eyes of some of the other customers.  They tried to hold his gaze, but eventually they were all cowed and went back to their ale, glancing around again once he had passed them by.  Interested, I drew up my foot on the bench and watched him very carefully.  In the dim light, I couldn't see his face, but I could see that he was dressed all in very dark – if not black – clothes.  There was a hefty sword at his hip and he moved with such control over his body that even his footsteps sounded intentional.  The barman didn't want to serve him, but did, because the man brought out a good silver piece and laid it down on the top.  Money can get you anything.

            "Get me a mug of ale," the stranger said quietly.  Yet in the uneasy hush, I heard his voice clearly.  It was a soft, foreign voice, from Rhana if my ears served me correctly.  Very interesting.  We didn't get many people from Rhana in Anderthal unless they were aristos or merchants and this man was neither.  If I knew anything about men who wore all black, he was exactly the sort who might start causing me trouble.  I let my hand creep down to my belt.  Good.  My sword was there. 

By this point, he'd sat down at a table facing the door.  As he drank, he looked suspiciously around at the rest of them, who futilely tried to pretend they hadn't even noticed him.  His fingers drummed a muted rhythm on the tabletop.  I wanted to see his face.  I was curious.  So, slightly drunk and therefore not quite in my right mind, I stood up with my hand on the hilt of my sword and went through the tables towards him.  The drinkers looked round again and I heard some whispers.  They were anticipating a confrontation.  Subtly, a couple of them shifted so they had a better view.

The stranger knew something was happening, but he continued to drink quite calmly.  For a moment, I stood behind him, but once I realised he was waiting for me to make the first move, I boldly reached out a hand and clapped it on his shoulder.  His jerkin was good quality leather, soft and supple.  Expensive stuff.  I took measured steps around to his side, letting my hand slide down his arm – a thin curtain of dark hair still hid his face - and then I squatted down beside him.  He looked round at me sharply and I was so surprised that I almost lost my balance.

The wounded man I'd met in the pampas had been ravaged by scars and half-healed cuts.  I'd thought that all of them would look like that, patterned with the marks of their trade.  I'd thought that this stranger would have been middle-aged, like the exile I'd spoken to.  But he wasn't.  He was young, probably in his twenties.  And too damned handsome for words.  

Thoughts speed through your mind at moments like this.  First I noticed his dark eyes, which were clear and sharply intelligent.  Then I saw that underneath his jerkin he wore a shirt of black silk, laced up to the neck.  He was so sure of himself that he didn't even blink as he met my gaze, while I only succeeded in keeping eye contact with a severe effort of willpower.  A small and wistful part of me wished that I hadn't been quite so careless with my appearance of late.  A scattering of hairs on my chin and upper lip had merged into something resembling a beard, but it lacked all definition and virility.  It probably made me look like an errant schoolboy.  But all this passed through my head in a split second.  Those eyes bored into me, emitting a subtle invitation to start a quarrel or a fight; whatever I wanted. 

I panicked. 

            "You are new here, stranger.  What is your business?"

            That was a fairly weak challenge, and he smiled slightly at it.  I frowned.  My hand was still resting on his forearm, but I didn't dare move it in case that made him realise how long it had been there.  I could feel the hard muscles of his wrist through his shirt.  My mouth grew dry, but there was no turning back now; everyone else in the tavern was watching our little tableau, and the stranger was taking a breath to speak.

            "I'm from Rhana.  And I come on my own business".

            If I had been unobserved, I would have been sorely tempted to let him go then.  Every second I knelt there, I grew more and more aware of his silent power.  But I was proving myself a man by refusing to allow my worry to sway my resolution.  I had won the respect of everyone else in the lower ranks of the town.  I told myself that one black-clad vagrant from Rhana wasn't going to make me look a fool in front of my subordinates.

"Listen to me, amigo," I said.  "Everyone's business is my business in this city.  We want to know what foreigners like you are up to.  If you intend any harm to us, we will find out and make sure you can never carry out your threats.  Am I clear?" I prayed he couldn't feel my grip on his arm trembling.  The words came out without my knowledge and, in case he'd thought I was being slightly too belligerent, I tried to smile.  "Just tell us what your peaceable errand is, friend and we won't bother you".

            "I am here to test the reception of my skills," he answered with a steady gaze.  Then I decided that it was time to move my hand.  I dropped it to the floor under the pretence of steadying myself, but in reality it was closer to my sword.  I had a good idea of what his skills were, and it would pay to be on my guard in case he tried anything.  But his deliberate evasion was beginning to irritate me.

"Ah, your skills," I repeated, almost mocking him.  I heard a murmur of laughter from the men at my back.  Yes, let them laugh at him.  "But what skills?" I demanded.  The man just smiled at me.  I felt my teeth clench.  "If you don't tell me," I threatened, "I will be expected to force the truth out of you".  I spoke quietly, to give him the chance to save me from making a fool of myself.  "These people expect it.  But, for all I know, you might be a worthy rival - someone I wouldn't want to double-cross".

            "Indeed, I might."  He paused.  Then his eyes glinted. "Try me".

            "You're wasting my time, amigo," I said, trying to hide a flood of rising panic.  "I don't want to have to hurt you".

            "Of course not," he smirked.  Then he pushed his tankard away and my heard sank.  "Besides," he said, leaning towards me with that same tone of confidentiality I'd adopted with him a minute ago, "I've heard that fighting spirit isn't strong in Anderthal.  If you'll just be content with my simple explanation, then I won't have to show you up in front of all these people".  The swine!  If I'd ever hoped to get out of it, that hope was gone.

            "You're cocky, señor," I said, forcing myself to stand up.  As I drew my sword, I abandoned all hope of remaining worthy in his eyes.  I shot him a glance of desperation.  It didn't matter to me if he thought I was weak.  But I couldn't afford to be shown up.  Why couldn't he just have made some excuse?  I would have let him go!  But he made no answer.  The words tasted sickly in my mouth as I scowled weakly at him.  "I shall enjoy crushing your pride.  Come, I propose to test your spirit.  Will you do me the honour?" 

            "Naturally."  The stranger stood up abruptly and drew his own sword.  I stifled a little whimper and turned it into a cough.  He must have been at least six foot two.  My stringy adolescent frame must have seemed pitifully small to our relishing audience.  Some of them were pushing tables out of the way.  I started screaming prayers in the privacy of my head.  I'd made a terrible mistake.  This man wasn't only tall, confident and well-built, but I was willing to wager every gold coin I owned that he was much better with a sword than me. 

I could have called for Claudio, but that would have meant admitting defeat.  And, in the private mess of emotion that I'd grown to call my heart, I didn't want to hurt this man unless I had to.  It was a strange feeling.  I didn't pity him.  But I admired him and I wasn't sure that I would be at all happy to see that handsome face ruined.  So, like a little fool, I abandoned myself.  I let my body take over; my words of formal challenge sounded tinny and distant to my ears, and I only faintly felt the jarring of my body as he parried my first clumsy blow.

The fools who watched us decided to take sides and soon people were cheering.  I saw that a few of them, for loyalty's sake, were supporting me and I also saw, in a brief moment of clarity, Claudio standing at the top of the staircase.  The stranger fought like a fury.  I wondered whether I could have been mistaken; whether he could be a soldier.  Every time I had to take a blow, the breath was knocked out of me.  He didn't even seem tired, though I'm sure I managed to nick his jerkin at one point. 

The cheers grew fainter and my vague control over my body grew less absolute.  I fell to defending myself; I staggered back into a table and only managed to carry on through a tremendous effort.  The flat of his sword caught me around the shoulders and I realized, with acute shame, that he wasn't even trying.  He was allowing me to fight him, but he was idly beating me with the flat of his sword, as if he was a bored tutor instructing some over-confident boy.  That realization lost me my concentration.  He lunged out at me quickly, forcing me to step back.  I lost my balance and the last thing I saw as I went down was the pity on his face.

He knelt on me, kicking my sword out of reach.  The smile on his face was as galling as if he'd wounded me.  I thought I heard them laughing at me.  Well might they laugh.  I'd just humiliated myself beyond belief.

            "What do you think, señor?" he asked, grinning at me.  "Am I a worthy opponent? Come on," he said, when I merely glared at him.  I struggled to think of the worst insult I could.

            "You fight like a soldier," I said.  Then I spat in his face.  It should have earned me another duel, but he just laughed at me and stood up, shaking his head.

            "Perhaps, but you fight like a schoolboy".  Then he walked away from me, through the people towards the doorway.  They all watched him, muttering to each other.  A few looked at me.  Ruined and left sprawled out on the floor, I scrambled up onto my feet.  He was almost at the top of the stairs.  Fury filled me.  I could see the shadows outside the door.  Waiting for my command.

            "Claudio!  Be ready!" I yelled out.  The murmur of talk stopped.  People looked at me and then up at the stranger, who had paused briefly in the doorway.  For the last time, he looked at me and then he left.

            I had the satisfaction of hearing him cry out in surprise as they brought him down.

*           *           *           *

I gave them half an hour or so.  For much of that time, I stood just outside the tavern door listening to them.  They'd dragged him round the corner into a little yard and I heard his shouts grow quieter until they faded away completely.  Shortly afterwards, Claudio reappeared looking grimly satisfied.  He held the stranger's sword in one hand and four daggers in the other.  My eyes widened.

            "Found these on him," he said.  "Two in his boots and the other two inside his shirt.  Even without 'em he was trouble."  He motioned with his head to one of his henchmen, who was pressing his fingers against a long scratch on his face.  "Pablo got the rough end of his temper.  Reckon you can do without trouble like him, boss".

            "I'll decide that," I said.  "Give me his weapons and you can go; I'll pay you later".

            "O' course".  Claudio obligingly handed over the blades and then the group was gone, vanishing into the streets like wraiths.  I ran my finger along the edge of one of the daggers.  Sharp, and of good craftsmanship.  The man had taste, and the money to spend on it.  When I was sure that my lackeys had gone, I walked slowly around to the yard where they'd left him.

He was sprawled out in a midden, one arm flung over his face.  He was conscious because he was muttering under his breath and, as I stood in the shadows at the edge of the yard and watched, he painfully pulled himself down onto the cobbles.  He winced, swore a colourful oath and then he squinted over at me.  A snarl twisted his lips.

            "You sadist," he muttered.  I watched him impassively.  Did it give me pleasure to see him brought low?  Assuredly.  Did I enjoy to see that handsome face bleeding and bruised?  Not at all.  It was at that moment, as I searched for a reply, that he moved slightly and his loosened shirt slipped open enough for me to see something he was wearing around his neck.  It was a crucifix, a great golden thing on a thick chain.  I raised one eyebrow, very slowly.  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… Wasn't that what the hunted assassin had said to me all those years ago?

"I'm no sadist, amigo," I said quietly.  "Just a man who likes to be in control".

            "A man?  Ha!" He shaded his eyes and looked harder at me.  "You're little more than a boy," he said scornfully.  "At your age, you ought to be flirting with girls, not chasing after broken assassins with a band of cut-throats".  I allowed myself the luxury of a bitter smile.  I doubted very much that I ought to be flirting with girls.  The stranger should be careful.  Patronising me wouldn't get him anywhere.  But at least I now knew that my guesses about him had been correct.

            "An assassin?" I said, impressed.  "From Rhana?"  I crossed to him and, though he instinctively drew back, I didn't mean to hurt him.  I went down on one knee at his side and studied him, and then I reached inside his shirt and lifted up the crucifix.  It seemed too much of a coincidence, that a young man trained as an assassin should come from Rhana, wearing a golden crucifix.  But this stranger couldn't be the Luigi that the exile had talked of.  He was far too young.  And then I remembered what he had said before.  No one can be better than Francesco... He divides us with his love for this boy! He's not even his real son!

Could this, I wondered, be that boy who had made the exile so angry?  "Why didn't you say who you were before?" I asked him, dropping the crucifix back against his olive-skinned chest.  "I wouldn't have been so quick to set them on you if I'd known you were from the Academy".  I wished now that I had seen the crucifix before.  But my mention of the Academy had surprised him. 

            "How do you know about the Academy?" he demanded.

            "I met someone from there once," I said.  "He told me about it.  The stories have always stuck in my memory.  I never thought I'd ever meet anyone else from there".  Then I looked at him sideways.  He was far from home and would be a dangerous enemy if I left his wounded pride to fester in the streets.  I could do better than that.  "Look," I said, standing up and brushing off my hands on my trousers, "would you accept my hospitality as an apology for your rough introduction to our city?"

            He stared at me for a moment.  Then he narrowed his eyes.         

"I have nowhere else to stay.  But I'll need my weapons back.  Those men of yours have probably taken them".  I smiled and held out a hand to where I'd piled them at the edge of the yard.  He nodded.  "And my horse".  I smiled.

"I will see to it."

*           *           *           *

It was not the most promising beginning, I will admit.