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Having been born under an optimistic star – there seemed to be no other explanation for such a sanguine nature – Adriano noted that the chamber was toasty warm; a welcome refuge from the sleet-shod winter night outside. Logs crackled thickly, wheezed and popped in the hearth at his back. Red and orange light caressed the imposing figure of his host. An imposing figure, he paced soberly first left, then right, then left again. Adriano surmised that he looked like a reasonable man; a man of learning, a fair-minded man when all was said and done, and Adriano resolved to tell him such. But first he thought to present his host with what he considered to be his most winning smile. Admittedly, the smile in question – a lopsided spreading of the mouth, heavily biased to one side, accompanied by a tilt of the head to show his large blue eyes to best advantage – had generally had more success with the bored matronly wives of magistrates and judges rather than older gentleman scholars such as his host, but still – anything was worth a try, was it not?
Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc the Sorcerer paused in his judgment of the young man who sat before him. The young man was certainly unusual. Not only was he showing a complete lack of concern for his safety given his current circumstances, he seemed to be positively relaxed! Moreover, the impudent youth even seemed to be a little curious about his surroundings. If Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc was not mistaken, the young man now appeared to be … smiling at him in away that Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc could only imagine was intended to appear winsome, cheeky even.
What a curious specimen this was. Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc reviewed him with interest. On the lad's feet were good quality suede boots. They rose up to the ankle and curled slightly at the toes. The boots were clearly still sodden from the snow and sleet outside. His legs were fitted into fine woolen hose, quartered black and red. A black velvet doublet of reasonable quality closely fitted over a white linen shirt. About his shoulders lay a heavy, dark green cloak, one that seemed to cause the youth no apparent discomfort despite the heat wafting onto his back from the fire. His pink cheeks were shaven smooth, his eyes of the brightest blue and his hair was as blonde as golden thread. On his head sat a black velvet pill-box hat with a single peacock feather. The youth was now tilting his head forward. This showed his eyes off to good advantage, partly concealed as they were beneath his long lashes and the fringe of his golden hair. A crooked smile also spread onto his face, favouring the right side of his face.
'What are you doing? What measure am I meant to take from this ... ' Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc paused a moment, his lips retreating back over his teeth in displeasure 'change in the formation of the face?'
'Well, y'see mi'Lord –'
'I am not yet a Lord nor Baron neither,' Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc snapped.
'Well, I pray your good pardon, Sirrah. But you appear to me a most elegant individual. Learned. A man of means …' Here Adriano noted that he had prompted a sardonic smile on the older man's face, noticed the flame's dancing reflection in the black pits of eyes. Adriano continued unabashed '… a man of', he pondered, ' wealth and taste.'
Deep, rich laughter boiled up from Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc and burst out around the painted walls of the chamber.
'Yeeessss,' the sorcerer mused.
Adriano continued to smile. He reasoned that it cost him nothing to do so and that he might yet still gain some favour from it, even though that did seem to be a somewhat unlikely proposition on the evidence so far. His host's name was still unknown to him, but it was starting to become obvious that Adriano had perhaps been unwise to have listened to One-Handed Marco's suggestion as to the location of the fattest and ripest households of the Western Hills district.
The master of this particular residence wore a padded grey silk kaftan, decorated with gold threaded symbols in an ancient writing Adriano did not recognize. From his head grew a tall conical felt hat. It was blood red. His forehead was like a chalk cliff, the eyes below the heavy furrowed brow looked like menacing black caves. A large nose jutted out like the prow of a war ship and a long grey beard cascaded down his chest.
'Good Sirrah, may I enquire after the name of the most august host in whose company I now have the pleasure of sharing?'
'You may. My name is Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc'.
'A most auspicious name!' Adriano cried in delight.
'Is that so? Would you care to repeat it then? And correctly?'
'Good Sirrah, it would not be right and respectfully proper for me to discourse with you in first name terms until proper etiquette have been observed.'
Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc said nothing for a moment, but simply turned a languid gaze in the direction of the broken glass that lay below the damaged window frame at the far end of the chamber.
'I believe under the circumstances of our acquaintance,' he turned back to face Adriano, 'the proper etiquette regarding the use of first name terms may be suspended. On this occasion, certainly.'
'Heh,' the young man grinned, 'I quite take your point. Well,' the boy turned his blue eyes directly into the dark slits of his hosts eyes, 'My dear good Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc, my name is …'
Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc didn't hear the name of the young man. He was far too startled at the fact that this youth had pronounced it perfectly, with almost no hint of an accent. For the first time in what must have been decades, Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc felt something like apprehension. Anxious that his face might have betrayed his surprise, Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc quickly took back the conversation.
'I beg your pardon young man,' Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc winced inwardly as he realized he had just apologized to a thief and vagabond he had caught red-handed in the act of breaking into his home, 'but as you can probably tell from my accent, I am not local to this region but come from lands far distant from here. The names of your brethren in this fair city still – occasionally – cause these ancient ears of mine me some difficulty. What did you say your name was?'
'Marco', said Adriano pleasantly. 'One-handed Marco to friends.'
'I can't help noticing that you appear to number among the ambidextrous of the world. Wherefore, then, are you considered 'One-handed' to your friends?'
'A-ha,' said Adriano, 'now thereby hangs an extraordinary tale – somewhat lengthy – which I would be glad to recount to you, if you like?'
Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc made no immediate response.
'The tale is a good one and I have entertained many of the quality with it. I must say though, for a truly good telling of the tale, I require some room to manoeuver about so that with mimes and shadow puppetry I can present the story almost as if you were there yourself. However, …' Adriano's voice trailed off. He nodded left and right at the enchanted wooden gauntlets that had sprung to life from the back of the carved chair and which gripped his shoulders tightly, pinning him into the ornate chair.
'I think not.'
'Of course, Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc, good Sirrah. I imagine you are man who has but little time to indulge in such trivialities.'
How is this mere boy able to pronounce my name so perfectly? thought the sorcerer to himself yet again. Tual'al'huac'xhillalo moved closer to his prisoner, and by means of complicated gestures made to uncover signs of magic within the young man. His investigation showed that there were none – or at least none that could be detected through his skill at the magic arts – and this presented him with a grave problem.
If Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc were to blast the young man into atoms here and now, he would be in his right to do so. This 'One-handed Marco' was a thief and a housebreaker. Were he a mere burglar, that would be the end of both the young man and the matter.
But this youth's ability to pronounce Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc's name was disturbing. The idea that he could have pronounced the name with accuracy after only a single hearing was both uncanny and unprecedented. Surely no mortal man lacking in sorcerous enhancements could be capable of such a thing? Could they?
When he had first trapped the thief, the only dilemma he had had to ponder was how – not whether – to dispose of him: to transform him into a frog and invite the crows to chew out his red raw stomach; to blast him with lightening bolts summoned from his finger tips; to transmute his flesh and blood into living wax and then melt him slowly over hours before the fire. But now … That he could pronounce Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc's name without error implied that he was himself magical or else the agent of another sorcerer. If that was the case, destroying him might result in a sevenfold disaster being visited on Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc in return.
Yet, he had used his most powerful spell of detection and it had shown nothing. Did this indicate some natural marvel – a human that could repeat perfectly anything that he heard after a single iteration? Or had he been magically enhanced? If the latter, who had done such a thing? How and why might they do it?
'Are you sure that I can't enlighten your evening with the tale of how I came to be known as 'One-handed Marco'? It's a terribly good story and it appears to me that you seem to be burdened by rather serious concerns.'
Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc looked at the youth as if seeing him for the first time. The youth smiled back at him genially, batting his eyelashes.
'Are you lettered?' demanded Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc abruptly.
'No, Sirrah, not I. Well, that's not quite true I suppose … '
'I can make my mark and I can actually read – with some effort mind – a goodly portion of the Codex.'
'And have you been abroad ever? Beyond the bounds of the city walls?'
'Oh, no, not I! My dear Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc', the sorcerer's eyes narrowed into coal-black seams, 'but for deer hunting with the court in the nearby Royal forests, I have never set foot outside of our fair Capital.'
'You are a member of court?' the sorcerer asked, his tone incredulous.
'Well, no. However, I am often at court. But as a servant, a mere factotum only.'
Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc's sense of alarm sharpened. Was this boy an assassin sent from the court? But if so, again, why? I've paid my taxes in full and I have assisted the Emperor on more than one occasion.
'Be not disingenuous with me – you are clearly a fellow of no small amount of cunning. You know I am sorcerer, and a powerful one at that. What was your motivation for breaking and entering my residence here tonight? The truth now!'
'The truth? Good Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc, the truth was that it was cold and I had not two pennies to rub together. I had missed out on an opportunity to seduce a certain maid of my acquaintance. This was a fair girl who would I'm sure have let me share the warmth of her soft bed. But I missed my rendezvous and so I had no other place to stay. From the snow-bound and cruelly cold streets outside, I saw the light from this chamber flickering in the windows. Yet I also observed flickering of a similar sort illuminating the glass of a dozen other portals in this, your stately villa. This suggested to me that I would be able to find at least on chamber which was bound to be empty for the evening. I bargained that I could spend a warm night in here by the fire of an empty rather than risk being frozen to the marrow out there in the snow and sleet.'
All the while Adriano had been giving this explanation, Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc had been carefully stroking his moustaches and beard while listening intently.
'And if I disbelieve your tale?'
'And if you do?' Adriano remarked somewhat airily. 'What then? I have broken a window, true, but I can soon make reparations for the cost of the glass. Would you begrudge me a place by a fire on such a night as this in a chamber you were in any case not likely to use?'
'You mean to suggest that I am guilty I see! But guilty of what crime I ask myself? Guilty for spending my life in toil, learning the Thirteen Secrets of Sorcery, becoming a master of such after years of painful dedication through which much poverty and anguish were suffered? You presume to suggest that by some spurious logic you feel yourself entitled to take a portion of my hard-won wealth and comfort despite the fact that I have devoted decades to my labours to achieve all this!' He paused a moment to indicate the painted walls of the spacious chamber with upraised hands.
Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc glowered down at his captive, his eyes shimmered in the light of the fire raging at Adriano's back.
Adriano beamed back a now familiar smile.
'I would perhaps not go so far as to describe my unexpected entry into your residence as 'entitlement', but … yes. I mean no offence, but Fate, surely, as much as the hard work of your hand, has delivered to you this gorgeous home. Fate, too, has denied me much for all my talents.'
'Take my father – he was one of eighteen children born in the docks of this fair city of ours. Fully one half of all those children did perish before they reached their second years. Of the nine that remained, six were girls and three only boys. All six girls turned to whoring before their fourteenth year – and Sirrah, my good Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc, no one – and I do mean no one – labours as hard as those whose occupation is to martial the lusts of men for a mere handful of farthings. So with six whores for aunts, what do you think became of my two uncles and father? Well, my uncles became robbers and both have long since been hanged. A fate well deserved, you might think. But did I tell you that they stole only out of a desire to spare some of their sisters from the pathways to whoredom? I did not – but it's true – that was their motive. And they went to the gallows knowing they had failed.'
Adriano lowered his eyes and was silent for a while, the smile had faded some time before. In spite of himself, Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc wanted to know the sequel.
'And your father? What was he?'
'An honest man. Aye, he was an honest man. He went to sea as a cabin boy and suffered … Many a captain took more than a professional interest in his person. Years later, a man full of rage of rum returned to our city - I knew him as 'Father'. Yet even so he would not curse the world nor turn to vagabondage. No, dear, kind Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc he turned instead to an honest trade. He mended nets for a pittance and raised his sisters' bastards. I was one of these. Though I call him 'Father' he is in truth my uncle. He did everything right, he abided by every one of the laws laid down in the Imperial Codex and he died, broken and spent at the age of 41.'
Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc observed that 'Marco' had allowed some heat to enter into this last part of his speech.
'Then how come you to be so well-dressed? Whoreson bastard that you are! I see you have on good black velvet, sude shoes and smart woolen hose! Do your clothes betray to me that which you will not? That you are a liar and a scoundrel?'
'Certainly not!' Adriano cried with indignation. 'You will observe, however, that I have inherited from one of my aunts – in truth I never learned which one and 'Father' would not tell me – her delicate features and beauty. Fate, and certain members of the court, have favoured these very same looks and it is this that has allowed me to wear such clothes as I have on my back.'
'But you are penniless then? How so?'
'I choose no longer to be a caged nightingale. I choose not to sing for my supper. I choose to be my own man.'
Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc roared with laughter at this last statement, as much as at the prideful tone as the revelation.
'You mock my pretensions, I see?' Adriano noted with a cheerful smile.
'AND WHY SHOULD I NOT?!?!' the sorcerer bellowed. A few moments of silence followed in which only the crackle of the fire could be heard as the ringing of Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc's words off the walls finally faded. 'You expect to take part of my charity - without my consent - and yet it transpires that no other but you yourself are responsible for your current position in life! This has gone too far. I believe you not. But!'
Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc turned and stared at 'Marco' as if he were looking right into his soul and almost as if he had already discovered Adriano hiding there.
'I will not kill you here and now.'
'Oh, well that's a relief then! So if I could just – '
'I will not kill you, but that does not mean to say you will leave this place alive.'
'Yes, 'oh'. No. This is how the affair will end. You argue that it is fate that has brought you here to my home this night? But I say it is by your own doing. Well then, let us see! We will see if Fate can guide your hand and allow you to leave this place alive. My hand will have no part in your destruction – should it come. Your hand, and yours alone, will be do the choosing – and if you choose to decide that Fate is controlling you ... that is a matter of your concern, not mine.'
And with that, Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc twisted around, twirled and spun until suddenly only a column of purple smoke remained in his stead. The smoke dissipated.
Alone, Adriano started to whistle a little sea-shanty and drum his fingers on the arms of the chair.
The far end of the chamber was shrouded in shadow. Adriano could not feel any hint of the chill air that must have been wafting through the broken window at that far end.
'He's taking his time,' Adriano said to himself.
The fire crackled. The painted decorations on the wall were of an exceedingly fine quality.
The wooden hands remained firm on his shoulders. His buttocks began to ache a little from the downward pressure.
There was suddenly the sound of flint striking on steel. Adriano stained his eyes but could see nothing until, of a sudden, red, blue, silver, gold and green sparks began to explode in a little cluster about thirteen feet in front of him. There was a burst of purple smoke out of which emerged the figure of Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc, holding out before him a dark blue lacquer table on which lay a trio of objects.
Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc set the table down in front of Adriano.
'Now then, One-handed Marco, you must choose. You want to be your own man? But you have no intention of toiling away to achieve such a prize? No – I see clearly that you would rather simply be a parasite on the work of your betters! Why then, you are welcome! Here are your choices.' Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc made a theatrical flourish with one arm waved high over the row of three items arranged on the table top. Adriano looked down and saw a book with copper plates on front and back and a copper clasp holding the pages tightly shut; a long slender silver poniard; a golden goblet encrusted with all manner of precious stones.
'Upon selecting just one of the items before, you will be instantly set free. Not only will it set you free, but it will take you to a safe place – away from here, away from my wrath – and upon arrival there transform itself into a purse stuffed to bursting with one thousand and one Royal Guilders. One choice only mind, will so benefit you.'
'I see! And the others?'
'The others will all lead to a different variety of agonizing death. Each will ensure that you suffer unspeakable agony over the course of thirteen years plus thirteen months …'
'So you mean fourteen years then?'.
Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc ignored the impertinent interruption.
'… thirteen weeks, thirteen days and thirteen hours. And finally, you die!'
'Ah-ha!' said Adriano in a frivolous and mildly sarcastic tone. For some reason, he seemed to be genuinely pleased despite his proximity to almost certain death. Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc folded his arms, evidently in a state of some annoyance.
'Hmm, two of these – just two? – will kill me outright, but one of them will allow me to save my skin?' Adriano winked at Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc.
Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc turned away sharply, not even bothering to hide his obvious anger.
'Let's see now … 'Eeny-meeny-miney-mo … '
'OH FOR THE SAKE OF ALL THAT IS SACRED!!!' Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc roared as he span around and rushed up to the lacquer table, gripping it tightly by either side and thrusting his sharp nose directly up against Adriano's.
'Just … pick … one,' he whispered in a voice trembling with rage.
Adriano grinned a toothy grin. It was quite different from the smiles he had worn earlier in the evening.
'Heh – and why not?'
Fuming, Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc let go the sides of the table and withdrew.
'There are just these items here to choose from you say? Just the ones that you placed in front of me? And no others?'
Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc inhaled a great quantity of air into his nostrils and tightened the grip on his folded arms.
'Correct' he answered sharply.
'Okay then!' Adriano held his hands over the table, fluttered the fingers of both hands rapidly until they became a feathery blur.
'I choose the table!'
'WHAT!?! No that's …. '
Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc lunged forward as Adriano reached forward as far as the enchanted chair would let him and took firm grip of the two nearest table legs.
Whatever Tual'al'huac'xhillaloc had to say next went unheard by Adriano. A few brief moments of darkness followed and then there was a sensation as if waking from a dream. Adriano looked around blinking from the bitter sweet tobacco smoke in his eyes.
'Heyyyyy!!!! It's muh boooooyyyyy Benvolio!!!!!!!!'
Adriano found himself smothered in the sweaty unwashed embrace of One-handed Marco.
'So! How'd my tip work out for ya, huh? huh? huh?' Marco asked, punching Adriano – who Marco knew only as Benvolio the Bold – not all that playfully on the arm. They were together in a dark corner of the Dragonfly and Lilypad tavern.
A great and bulky weight was pressing into Adriano's back. It was unmistakably a bag of coins. Quite large coins – most likely Royal Guilders; most likely a great quantity of them; more than a thousand? There was no sign of the blue lacquer table. Deftly, Adriano pushed the bag of coins futher into the small of his back.
'Ahh, never took you up on it to be honest', he lied brazenly. 'Listen Marco, you couldn't stand me a quart of wine could you? I've a terrible thirst but I'm kind of broke right now …'
'Ayyyyy!!!! No bother!! Landlord!! LANDLORD!!! Two quarts of wine over here!!! On the double like!!!'
'Thanks, Marco! You're a decent fellow and friend indeed'
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