Devil in the detail

The thing about a period setting is all the research. I should clarify that. I’m not spending days on end in the British library reading rooms poring over any dusty tomes. I have a job and two small kids. No, my research is more of the ‘Googling “What sort of trousers did they wear in the 16th century?”‘ variety. But it can threaten to take over if you’re not careful. Let it go too far and pretty soon you’re asking the internet whether they said ‘maybe’ in 1592. And this way madness lies.

Once again this introduction performs the function of a Shakespearean chorus: excusing what you’re about to see in advance. Any historians in? Don’t read too closely and, if you spot any anachronisms, imagine I was fully aware and left them in for artistic purposes. General readers should apply the same rule if they spot any bits that are poorly-written.

So here’s part two of the Paris backstory thing. Our last installment found Paris’s father receiving bad news about his latest trade mission and here, right on cue, some ‘heavies’ barge in to demand their money.

At precisely this moment the door to the study flew open and crashed against the wooden panels of the wall.  There marched into the room three gentlemen, two light-footed and elegantly-dressed, the third in slightly tattered garb, and behind them a pair of feet skittering along that I identified as those of Mrs da Guda, the head of our staff of maidservants.

“My lord, they barged in before I could stop them!” Mrs da Guda squeaked.  “I told them you were already in conference but the big one berated me in most vulgar tones!”

“I have not nearly begun,” came the gravelly voice of one of the intruders.  “Persist in attempting to stop us, signora, and you shall hear and see a great deal more of my vulgarity.”  This speaker’s club-like fists, I noted, were scarred and stained with something foul and grey-black.  He pointed at Strangwish.  “You too, trencher man.  Begone or I’ll pop you like a buboe.”

The push factor of this threat allied with the pull of the crisp night air was enough to cause Strangwish to depart in short order, with not another word or sound.  Mrs da Guda’s loyalty, too, had reached what she considered its reasonable limit and she exited quickly, the third intruder slamming the door after her.

From my hiding spot it was hard to tell the two smaller men apart, but my attention was in any case fixated by the one whose hands I had identified as keenly accustomed to some form of physical toil.  This gentleman leaned himself against my table and it creaked in protest.  As he gripped its edge I could see his fingernails, such as were left, and they were thick, yellowed and rimmed with grime.

One of the elegantly dressed men, who throughout all this had remained still and silent, took a seat before my father.

“Lord Paris,” he began.  “Come sta, signor?”  Father did not reply. “First of all, we must apologise for the late hour of our visit.  Circumstance does not always permit strict adherence to society’s conventions and here we find ourselves in just such a circumstance.  Though I notice you are not unaccustomed to nocturnal conference?”

Still father kept quiet and I knew he was eyeing the intruders with his hard, blue-eyed stare.

“Be it so,” the man continued, “I feel justified in coming to the meat of the matter: our employer, sad to say, has found himself somewhat out of pocket this month and so it falls to me and my colleagues here present to render such assistance as we find ourselves able;  specifically, in this case, to visit you, one of our employers’ most loyal contributors, at this unseemly hour and enquire as to your situation – namely your financial situation…

My child’s mind was entranced by this amiable gentleman.  His speech was like a song and the words contained in it flowed together gently and pleasingly.  I wondered why my father did not answer to such warm interlocution.

“Please, my lord,” the eloquent man continued.  “It waxes late and this is the end of a long and arduous day for me.”  His tone became almost conspiratorial as he leaned in closer to my father.  “I would dearly love to delegate some of these duties, as men of our wit may do, but my brother,” he indicated the other well-dressed man, “has not spoken a word since our mother died, which makes him of little use in negotiation.  And Uccello here…” He indicated the large man.  “Well, he is able to speak, though, dio mio, little of what he says is suited to the art of dialogue.”

Inches from my head the large man’s fingers closed into a fist and I heard the joints cracking.  Still my father was silent.  Could he be nervous?  Was he still upset by the news from his departed captain? Or was the subject at hand as aloof to him as it was to me and he was afraid to admit it?  None of these were usual with him and so seemed unlikely.  It took what happened next to prick my naivety.

The eloquent man shut his eyes, looked pained, and nodded.

With a speed that belied his size the large man advanced on my father, seeming to grow in size as he did so.  It was difficult to see exactly what occurred as the man’s enormous bulk blocked my view, but there was the noise of scuffling feet and grunts of effort from both men.

When Uccello stepped away I saw blood upon my father’s face, issuing from a ragged gash across his cheek!  It took every shred of my effort to remain silent.

The eloquent man sighed then took a handkerchief from inside his doublet and held it out.  My father merely stared at it then wiped his face with the palm of his hand.  “It pains me…” the eloquent man began, his voice trailing off as though he had thought better of continuing.  His tone became just a little impatient.  “Would you risk your life, so dear to your family, for something as vulgar as money?”

“I have none.”  Finally my father spoke!  “At least none to spare, and not enough as would satisfy your employer.”

“You’ll forgive me if I find that rather difficult to believe,” the other replied, casting a glance at his opulent surroundings.  “There is much here of great worth, is that not so?”

“Nothing that I would give to you,” came the blunt reply.

“Nothing you would give…” the eloquent man said, nodding to Uccello, who made ready to advance again.  This time as he did so I caught sight of what he carried in his hand.  It was a blade, six inches long, and thin as a sapling branch.  It was not its size, however, but its shape that horrified me.  Its cutting edge was serrated to form vicious teeth and where the blade met the hilt two more steel protrusions, smooth and wickedly sharp curved outwards and ended in points.

I yelped, clapping my hands over my mouth, too late to arrest the sound.

Uccello froze and quiet fell in the room.  I watched as though at a remove from my body as the man paced towards the table.  I braced myself for the hand that would snake down and pull me from my hiding spot by the hair and in those brief seconds pictured this monster snapping me into two pieces like stale bread.  I watched eight calloused fingers curl around the underside of the table.

My hiding place exploded.  The table flew up, spinning in the air, and landed with a mighty crash an inch from me.  Still I was frozen.  My father ran for me, calling my name, but Uccello grabbed him in a vice-like grip.  The eloquent man’s brother, who had spent the entire time leaning against the door frame, walked slowly over to where I was cowering and lowered himself onto his haunches.

He was identical to his loquacious brother in every way.  He was thin, his pale cheeks brightened with rouge, and his hair had receded at the front to a widow’s peak.  His eyes looked colourless, as though his pupils had dilated and swallowed any hint of blue or brown.  He smiled and held out a hand.

“Young Master Paris, is it?!” the talkative brother said, delight in his voice.  “Almost a man grown!”

“What are you doing here?!” my father growled.  Blood from the wound had run into his mouth and his gritted teeth were tinged red.  He looked like the Devil himself. I could not answer.  I could not think.  I cowered from the silent brother’s outstretched hand and wished to disappear.

“Bring him out to meet us!” the eloquent man said.  Uccello moved at this but I saw the eloquent man hold out a hand to stop him.

The silent brother waggled his fingers and smiled again, gesturing with a flick of his head that I should rise.  Seeing no other option I did so, slowly and on trembling legs.  The silent man took my hand and drew me over to where my father and Uccello were.  I avoided my father’s stare, looking only at the familiar woven pattern on the carpet.

“Now,” the eloquent man continued, “Let us return to business.”  He turned to me and his voice took on a singsong quality.  “Perhaps you may learn something young master.  It might serve you well when all this belongs to you.”  He turned back to my father.  “Some of the items in this room would serve adequately as an earnest of greater payment in the future.  Surely this is agreeable to you, sir?”

My father was still looking at me.  He spat on the floor.  The eloquent man nodded and smiled.  “There are more precious things in this world than money, my lord,” he said.  “My brother could teach you that.  The loss of family is felt more keenly than the loss of material things and is impossible to rectify.  My brother could teach you that.  And he could teach your boy here, is that not so, brother?”  I felt the silent man’s hands tighten on my upper arms.  “You are how old, young Master? 7 or 8?  He could educate you in so much, young master Antonio…”

The silent brother released my left arm and placed his fingers on my head, ruffling my hair, grazing the top of my ear.  I could feel his warm breath on the nape of my neck.

“Enough!” my father cried.

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