by Tsuki Akari (月あかり)
illustrated by halcyonjazz
Agnolo knew that Daniele Bugiardini wanted him dead. He was sure of it. He had been sure of it since ten years ago, when he had married Daniele’s favorite cousin. This had been too much for Daniele, who was so used to being attractive and successful and better than Agnolo. He was tall and fair with strong shoulders and good legs. Agnolo was short and spindly with poky black hair. Daniele’s father was a friend to the Medici, the finest citizens in all of Firenze. He worked for the bank and traveled across all of Italy. Agnolo’s father was Daniele’s father’s notary. They had been good friends. They had been such good friends that when Agnolo’s father died when he was eight, Signore Bugiardini had been so kind as to take him into the Bugiardini house to be educated with all of the Bugiardini brothers and sisters and cousins and Daniele.
Daniele was the youngest of four sons, and could not have hoped for much, but he was by far the one that everyone liked best. He had red-blonde hair that curled around his face and a wide, happy smile. His eyes sparkled. He agreed with everyone. He read a lot of books. He sang beautifully in Church. He never once in his childhood had so much as a cough. No one cared what he would do with himself. They all liked him. Everyone thought Paola Bugiardini had liked Daniele, but then she went and liked Agnolo better. She liked small, dark, silly Agnolo, about whom she always laughed. She liked him enough to marry him instead of her cousin, and Daniele had acted so badly at the wedding that Agnolo never nodded to him on the street again.
It would not have been such a production if the trouble had ended there, but four years later Paola died in childbed. That was when Daniele began telling lies about Agnolo’s father. He said that Piero di Leonetti had been a desperate man. That he had taken desperate deals. He had treated with the city’s enemies in this desperation and he had died for it. Agnolo knew these were lies. His father had been an honest man, and hadn’t Signore Bugiardini agreed? This did not seem to matter. Daniele said these lies with such style and grace that there was no doubt at all that the whole city would agree with him. Daniele was a good and prominent citizen. He had three times been elected to the Signoria and had served wisely each time. He spoke often in public, and he spoke well. Agnolo for his part served as prior once or twice on behalf of the guilds and never gained much notice for it. He took his father’s business, and he was good at it, but he was no banker and he was no great friend of the Medici. One could easily take him for a suspicious, grasping little man. Daniele did, and Agnolo did not doubt that others believed him. Paola had been Agnolo’s one victory over Daniele, and even eight years after her death that one victory angered him. He would never accept another. That is why he told lies about Agnolo, and this is why Agnolo was sure that that evening Daniele would see him dead.
The business had begun after mass, out in the Piazza del Duomo as Agnolo had come down the steps of the cathedral. It was here that he passed by Daniele and a group of his very well-dressed friends. Agnolo did not nod to Daniele in the street, but this did not mean he was not allowed to shove past him quite meaningfully. It was here that Daniele caught his shoulder, with a gentle laugh.
“Agnolo! Is that you, Agnolo! Wait, you must speak to me. I have heard so little about you these days.”
“How funny,” said Agnolo. “I have heard so much of you.”
It was here that Daniele laughed. It pleased him to know that people spoke of him. “So you have heard? My name has been drawn again. It is a nice thing to participate for the good of the city, isn’t it?”
These words might have been kind, but Agnolo could hear what he did not say: ‘Participate for the good of the city, unlike you and your family? Isn’t that right Agnolo?’ Agnolo shoved his hand away. “You participate in too much good,” said Agnolo, “if what they’re saying is true.”
At this Daniele blinked at him, as wide-eyed and honest as everyone always believed. It was a wonder that his parents never sent him to the Church, but two of his four brothers were already there and it would have been the grief of every woman in Firenze had he gone. He frowned, winningly. “I do not know what they say of me,” he said. Then he smiled, equally winningly. “But I know that it is likely untrue.”
Agnolo could hear his true response: ‘But the lies I tell about your father, those we know are completely true, aren’t they?’ Agnolo stuck his chin high in the air, and resolved to take a peaceful course than he. They were standing outside a house of God, after all.
“You mean like those lies you tell about my father, you thieving son of a whore?!”
The scuffle that broke out on the steps of the cathedral was perhaps not the typical Sunday fare.
By the time they were separated money had already exchanged hands among the onlookers, and most of it to very little profit, as everyone had placed their bets on Daniele. He was tall and athletic, Agnolo was small and flat-footed. Agnolo hunched like a mangy dog. He had, at least, managed to pull Daniele’s clothes out of order. This Daniele fixed with a few brushes of his hand.
“My friend, my Agnolo,” he said. His soothing lilt made Agnolo’s lip curl. All of Daniele’s fashionable friends laughed. “If you are so hungry for a fight, perhaps you should come for dinner some time!” Agnolo limped home, cursing Daniele and his children, should he ever marry and father them. Daniele’s man arrived within the hour, with an invitation for supper the next day.
If this was Daniele’s game, so be it. Daniele did not know all Agnolo knew. It was to his own benefit that the fight had been so swiftly concluded, before he could grow too impassioned and say too much. He still had his weapon, that thing that could end all troubles Daniele brought into his life.
The next morning Agnolo drew up the appropriate papers, calling one of the apprentices as witness. Giuseppe clasped his master’s hands and watched the feverish scratch of the pen with amusement. He had seen it before.
“What is the occasion today, Master?” he asked. “Shall there be a fight in San Lorenzo?” Like others, he had gotten word of yesterday’s devotions.
A benevolent master, Agnolo chose to ignore his sarcasm. “Tonight I am to dine with my greatest rival,” he declared. “And I may die. These letters are to be delivered to my household in the event that I do.”
Giuseppe eyed the table, crowded with pens and inkstands and wax for the seals. “How are you to die?”
“A number of possible ways. Daniele is shrewd. I know he would not extend an invitation were the plan not most cunning. These are to go to the Gonfaloniere of Justice,” he said. “You see them?”
“I do, master. But I am confused.”
The boy shifted, considering. “If you know this man, and if you know that he is your greatest rival, and also know that he would like you dead… why accept his invitation?”
Agnolo slammed his hands down on the desk. The books he’d had presence of mind to place against his inkstands kept them firmly in place. This gesture was a favorite of his. “Because then he would call me a coward along with the rest of the lies he tells of me.”
“If they are lies won’t he say this anyway?”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Agnolo. “If I die everyone will know this was untrue. And they shall know the rest as well. It is in these documents I give you now.” He folded them over and slid them over to his apprentice. Giuseppe took them, taking the greatest care in tucking them under his arm. Agnolo continued: “Besides, deadly rivalry is no excuse to act like a pig. You should take note of all of this, Giuseppe.”
“I am, I am.”
With this in mind Agnolo set out. He wore his cleanest linen shirt and his most colorful doublet. It was the one with the largest sleeves, for Daniele had better arms.
The Casa Bugiardini was located in Firenze’s wealthier quarter. It was the beautiful, square Casa afforded by rich friends in high places. Agnolo knew the way. It was where he had been raised and educated. He made haste, so that none should see his skinny legs in their hose. He avoided the side streets, certain Daniele would have predicted he’d take them.
When he arrived at the Bugiardini household, he knew he had been right to suspect. Daniele’s man, Riccio, ran out to greet him. He informed him, in the hurried way of one whom had not actually expected the person with which he was now speaking, that the family was out, and to forgive any lapse in hospitality, for the house was not at full capacity at this time.
“It must shame your young master to have me here,” said Agnolo, darkly.
To which Riccio swore up and down that this was not the case. “Filippe Bugiardini has business in Volterra,” he said. “The family has gone off to the country. Young Daniele has stayed to keep the affairs in order here.”
“How convenient!” spat Agnolo.
“Please, Signore. You should come this way.”
“I know the way.” Agnolo did. He stormed the yard and the gallery with his head high. Upstairs, the sala was much as he remembered it: spacious and decorated by expensive sculptures and large frescoes. There must have been a marriage or two more since he had last been there, as there were at least four more cassones then he could recall. It was quieter as well. Filippe and his eldest sons were gone. Only five or so voices thundered from the far bedrooms.
“Who is that?”
“Agnolo! Is that Agnolo!”
“No one else stomps like that. Agnolo! Where have you been! Have you brought me something!”
Three or four sisters and perhaps an aunt rushed out to the sala. Four or five children and babies came with them. They came at him and Agnolo saw that the casa had been left nearly abandoned. Were he to die there, there would be few witnesses. Agnolo cursed Daniele’s good timing.
Outwardly, he answered the family’s questions:
“No, I have not brought Tommaso. Yes, I am well. Yes, I have work. Yes, Francesca, Luigi’s still married and you should drop him. No, Alonzo, that is not for you. The pen in my left pouch, that one is for you. No, I’ve not heard from Giulio.”
Daniele’s man came up beside him. He told him that Daniele would see him in the small bedroom.
Naturally the whole family heard this:
“You will not eat with us in the sala?”
“This is wrong. Daniele this is wrong!”
Agnolo could not have agreed more, but Riccio informed them that Daniele had called Agnolo di Leonetti here for very important business, the likes of which was strictly private.
The sisters and children and perhaps an aunt complained bitterly, for some remembered how fun it was to laugh at Agnolo before he’d left the casa. Still, they ushered Agnolo forward from the sala and instead through the grand bedroom. It lay in only a small amount of disarray, with so few to loiter in it. From here, he walked through Filippe’s studio, Mario’s room, Antonio’s room, Filippe’s (the younger) room, as well as the room that belonged to cousin Filippe. Finally, he was shown Daniele’s room. Daniele was younger, so he had gotten the one towards the back of the casa, located under the kitchens. Smells and sound drifted down from above. It was all as he remembered. Riccio disappeared.
“Agnolo!” called his deadly rival, who stood to greet him. “Come in.” He put his arms around him in a customary embrace. Agnolo jerked away. “You are so flustered. Why is this? Surely you are not still sore from yesterday.”
Agnolo still sported a large bruise on his ribs, and he burned with the reminder of it. “I am well,” he said, eyeing the hand on his shoulder sidelong.
Daniele guided him to a chest in the center of the room. On this chest was a cloth, a cooler, and two cups. He had stolen a stool from one of his brother’s rooms. “Come. Come sit with me.”
There were three hangings occupying the three largest walls of Daniele’s camera. They were gifts from his father, imported from the North: Apollo and the Eagle, The Judgement of Paris, and Daniel and the Lions. Agnolo peered at each, searching out any suspicious lumps. Hangings were a convenient place to hide people. He’d hidden there many times as a boy. They could easily hold a man, and that man could easily hold a dagger. That dagger could easily find his back, if he were not careful.
“Too sore to sit?” smirked Daniele.
Agnolo sat, banging his heels on the floorboards. The stool squeaked in protest. Daniele looked very smug about this as well. He poured the wine. It came from the same cooler, but Agnolo had heard stories of cups with secret chambers, in which deadly poisons could be poured. His would-be murderer held out the cups. Agnolo grabbed the one closer to his chest. Wine sloshed over his good sleeve, and he had to shove it up his wrist to hide the stain, but if there was a moment of confusion in Daniele’s face Agnolo was satisfied. He would not be so easily caught.
“Let us forget yesterday, for now,” said Agnolo. He could afford to be generous. He held his cup high. “We should say our graces and eat hardily.”
“Yes,” said Daniele. “For now.” He drank without hesitation. Agnolo frowned. One of the servants from the kitchen brought a lump of cake and some fruit and knives. It was placed on the chest. Daniele nodded to the girl. She left the way she came.
Damn, thought Agnolo, he would have a backup plan. And look at how quickly he sent the girl away!
He reached for the knife before Daniele could grasp it. “I will do this,” he said, slicing a piece. He held it out to Daniele. “For you.” It pained him to do this, but when Daniele took it and ate it, he knew it was safe. It was sweet. The Bugiardini could afford sweetened foods. The fruit he was not so sure of. He made sure to slice the pears into many pieces, taking each between his thumb and forefinger and turning it twice before popping it into his mouth.
Daniele watched this burdensome task with amusement. “You are much too tense. You work too hard. You will die of stroke.” It was like Daniele to show such concern. Mercy was, after all, a show of Godliness.
“Some do not have the option to relax,” said Agnolo. “If one does not work hard, then no work is done at all, and then I and all under my offices will die in the streets like dogs.”
“Not true,” said Daniele, taking a greedy bite from the pear he held by its round bottom. “You might have stayed here. My father would have found work for you. He would have been glad to have you.”
“I am no banker,” said Agnolo. “I am an honest man doing an honest man’s work.” Like my father, is what Agnolo did not add. He hoped he did not add it with enough emphasis for Daniele to hear the omission. He must have, for he did not continue on this course. He gestured for the next course.
This was soup, a thick bean soup. Agnolo glared at the girl as she brought it. She set it down and escaped out the door. Agnolo gripped the side of his stool, and frowned. Soup. It could be poisoned. There could be spikes in it. It could simply give him terrible stomach pains. It could be so hot that it could melt through the lusterware and burn him so badly he would die of infection.
“Is something the matter?” asked Daniele. “You are even more tense than usual.”
He may know I know, thought Agnolo. And then he will simply bludgeon me with the plate.
“I am sorry, Daniele.” The apology came gruffly, so he affected a cough. “You see, I have been recently ill. The doctors have said I have an excess of bile. It has taken time for it drain from me, and until then I have been told an excess of beans will only slow this process.”
“None at all.”
“He could not have simply bled you?”
“He did that as well.”
Daniele looked him over in great sympathy. “No wonder you looked so pale and spindly yesterday. You were so weak, I had thought I’d handled you too roughly.”
“Today I’m better,” said Agnolo, hiding the curl of his lips behind his stained sleeve after another cough, “but to be sure, no beans.”
“I suppose that is no great loss for you, you never did like them.” Agnolo nearly choked on his tongue, but Daniele graciously waved the dishes away. The roast came next. It was a large roast, soaked in rosewater, sweet to smell and covered in dried fruits and nuts. It steamed when set down between them, still twitching from the heat of the pot. It was bound and very dead. The cow had probably been killed that very morning. This was never anything that had crossed Agnolo’s mind. He had always been in favor of meat. The thicker, the more freshly dead, the most hardy and suitable for a long day at work. Now, he slipped his cap from his head, staring down as Daniele cut into it with a knife. It was densely boiled, but it still bled fresh juices as the blade sawed through.
His expression must have been taken for one of awe at such a fine dish. Daniele’s grew wider. He leaned his elbow onto the chest so that his head hung level with Agnolo’s, knowing that he had cornered him, knowing that, yet again, he had won. “How is Tommaso?”
Agnolo halfheartedly took a slab of beef onto his bread. “He is well.” He wished he had not let Daniele have the knife. “He is old enough that I’ve hired a tutor for him. He is learning the classics, as he should. His Latin is excellent and his Greek is coming along. He will be joining me in my work soon.”
“He is six now, isn’t he?”
“Yes.” Daniele already knew this. Agnolo slid his cap back up his forehead. “He is advanced for his age. I see your brothers have had many children. Old Filippe must be pleased.” And you have none, Agnolo did not add. He knew that would be heard.
“Paola should be pleased.”
Agnolo dropped his bread and meat. This was too much. It was one thing that Daniele intended to see him dead that day, it was another to bring the dead in so candidly.
“Agnolo?” Daniele asked. “Oh, Agnolo. You’ve made a mess.” He leaned over the chest, grabbing a piece of the tablecloth and reaching to dab at him.
Agnolo grabbed his wrist before he could touch him. His eyes snapped up, hot with all of his pent up frustrations at the game he’d made of it. “You should not say her name.”
The villain cocked his head. He looked not at all troubled by the grip, although Agnolo held him so hard his own knuckles had gone white. “Why not? She was my cousin. I may talk about my family as I’d like.”
“Like how you talked about us when we were married?”
“Ah, Agnolo. That was a long time ago.”
“Or like you talk about my father?” Agnolo threw his hand away and flew to his feet. “My father was in the grave for just as long when we were married. What right did you have to drag his name about so? To speak ill of your rivals because you are crossed in love is one thing, but what did he have to do for this?”
Daniele craned his head back at him. “So we have come to this.”
“So we have!” shouted Agnolo. “And now will you tell lies about Paola? Paola was a good and true woman. The only thing you find untrue about her is that she laughed harder at me than anyone else in this house, but she still became my wife. But you will speak ill of her, won’t you? And everyone will believe you, because you are a good citizen, because you are rich, and virtuous, and have excelled everything you have ever done. So you excel with your lies. You have dragged my family down with them, and now, now you go too far! Do you think yourself so without blame that you may fling it at others so freely! I know that is not true!”
“What have I said of Paola just now?”
Agnolo’s hands froze in mid thunder. “You…” His hands fell to his sides. “You… made suggestions, about her virtue.”
“That was you.”
Agnolo flushed. “You got very drunk and insulted her when we were married.”
Here, Daniele’s sunny eyes clouded. “This is true.” They lifted again, clear as a saint’s. Agnolo hated him for that. “I was upset with her. But not for the reasons you’ve assumed. It’s true she had betrayed me, many years ago, but we forgave each other. She was my closest friend.”
“My closest after you, that is.”
Agnolo stared. He regained himself only in time to step back as Daniele stood, picking up the knife from the floor and settling it over the chest. He laid it plain sight. Agnolo watched this as his mind slowly came back to him. No, surely Daniele was playing for time. Surely he wished for him to be off guard. He thought of all those years growing up in Casa Bugiardini. How he had been younger than all of them except for Daniele, who was of an age. How Daniele had despised him for taking attentions away from him. How Daniele had always gone out of his way to humiliate him in front of their tutor, in front of his family, and do it in such a way that Agnolo would know it was him, and Agnolo would rage. The Bugiardini children loved Agnolo’s rages. You always knew exactly what was on Agnolo’s mind when he was in a temper, and this was something all children found spectacular fun. Agnolo would shout, and snarl, and stomp his feet, and the family would laugh at him. Daniele laughed especially loudly, and the only one who ever laughed harder than him was Paola, who was a year older than the both of them. Agnolo used to believe Paola put Daniele up to it. He used to believe that they were conspirators. That they both saw him as a clownish outsider, to whom they ought to pity, as God required sympathy for a fatherless child, but never as family. He had believed this, up until the day he had fallen from a horse and come to find he had been carried from the city gates to Casa Bugiardini. Paola had been with him there, her face the picture of fear, and for a moment in her wide eyes he saw himself as she saw him: and it was not just silly at all.
He’d never wondered who had carried him back that day.
Daniele crossed the room and reached a hand between his bed curtains. It might have been to draw a weapon. He turned holding a parcel of sealed envelopes, all made of heavy vellum, and stamped with a seal that Agnolo knew very well.
“I don’t tell lies about your father,” said Daniele.
Agnolo bristled, shocked out of his stupor. He straightened his back with a woeful crack. “You’ve taken his name to open debate. You’ve named him in writing. You used a pen-name, but everyone knows it was you.”
“They weren’t lies.” Daniele held the envelopes out to him.
Agnolo refused to take them. “Where did you get those?”
“Paola found them for me. In your father’s casks, after you were married. She gave them to me, so that no one would find them with you.”
“You can spot a forged document from atop the basilica,” said Daniele. “Tell me, is this your father’s seal?”
Agnolo took the topmost envelope. He held it up to the light of the lantern in the corner. He turned it once in one direction, and twice in the other, feeling along the seam. His lips went thin. He looked away from it, holding it out for Daniele to take it back, but Daniele placed the rest in his hand.
“My father liked Piero,” said Daniele, closing his fingers over Agnolo’s, so that he would not drop them. “He was good with records, and ledgers, and finding out all sorts of useful things. He was also good at providing things that had not existed until he had been asked for them. He was not a bad man,” Daniele’s hand closed tighter, as Agnolo tried to pull away with this, “I never said that he was. You know I didn’t. But he was at that time a poor man, and his knowledge of handwriting was so useful when one needed an incriminating letter or two to bring a case before the Signoria. You see what I am saying?”
“You’re saying my father provided false records. You’re saying he was a liar and a swindler.”
“They paid him well. He was able to support his family, but by the time my father met him he was wracked with grief with what he had done. Men had been hanged by his documentation. My father was at that time on the Signoria. He came to him, and told him everything. Father allowed him into the household, promised to keep him safe while he provided information on the men whom had requested his services, but those men had ears as well, and they worked to silence him.”
“You expect me to believe this?”
“No,” Daniele laughed, softly. “No, I never have. But I expected you to get obstinate about it, and work that much harder to show everyone how wrong I was. You are the most honest man in Firenze, Agnolo. Everyone knows exactly what you think and feel, and no one would ever suspect a thing of you. You so clearly knew nothing of it. No one could make any use of you.”
“How much did Paola know?”
“Everything I did. She was hiding in the hangings with me, the day Piero came to my father’s study.”
“And so she knew all along,” Agnolo crossed his arms behind his back and turned on his heel. “And so you knew all along.” He paced towards the door. He heard Daniele’s footsteps follow him. Of course he would come on him while his backed was turned. Agnolo whirled with an open palm, and struck him flat across the face. “You have some gall, expecting me to buy this!”
Daniele’s head snapped to the side, more from sheer surprise than any real force. He brought a hand to his cheek, touching the light welt. “But I have just… those documents—”
Agnolo shoved the documents down his stained doublet. “Theater props in this show you’ve put on to throw me off of your scent.” He pointed. “Of course Paola should take me for a fool, I was her husband, it was my duty to be an idiot for her amusement. But you would be a bigger idiot to assume you may do the same. I know things as well, Daniele Bugiardini. You say you ruined my father’s name to protect me from my enemies. How like you to play yourself as such a saint.”
“A patron saint of lies,” snarled Agnolo. “Showing such a virtuous face to your family, to your city. Acting as though it is your right to impart information as you see fit, because of course you are their precious Daniele.”
“Everyone believes that your doings are touched by God! Oh, Daniele, he is so chaste, so clean, always thinking of his fellow man. He should have been a priest, but our daughters would cry for the loss of him! Yet he will not marry a one of them, he is just too pure and clean. No one would ever suspect you of anything, you are peerless. But I’ve always known better. I knew when you invited me here with the intent to take my life.”
“To do what? Agnolo, have you finally gone mad?”
“To commit murder! Upon my character! …and also upon my physical person,” Agnolo added that last part quickly. “Yes, I was onto you from the start, Daniele. But know that should I die this day the whole city will know the truth about you, and the crimes that you have committed.”
“Which would be…?”
Agnolo rummaged through his pouch and managed after some jostling to produce the papers he had so painstakingly copied out the night before. “There was a recent trial, in which a number of unseemly persons were questioned in regards to certain activities in this fair city.”
He waited expectantly. Daniele held his hands out blankly. Agnolo sighed and clarified, “Certain immoral activities, with…certain persons…”
When Daniele’s expression had grown no less confused Agnolo threw the papers at his head. “Certain immoral activities between men and prostitutes. Who were also men. There, shall I go more into detail? Your description came up several times among these characters of interest. No name. But I need no names to know the truth.”
Daniele held the papers in bewilderment. “How did this information come by you?”
“I have my sources.”
“Who were these self-same ‘characters of interest’? When did you have the time…”
Agnolo brought his boot down on the floorboards. “That is not the issue! The issue is I’ve got you, Daniele.”
“Yes. And if you strike me down here, the whole city shall know it.”
“And so my virtuous reputation shall be ruined?”
Daniele let the papers slip from his hand. They scattered across the floor. “Agnolo,” he said, his voice catching oddly. It took Agnolo a moment of panic and wondering if, perhaps, the food had been poisoned after all to realize that he was holding back the beginnings of a laugh. “Agnolo…is that how you see me?”
He was playing for time. He was panicked. He knew that he had been discovered and was now attempting to shake Agnolo’s regard. “As a sodomite, yes.”
“No,” said Daniele, shaking his head slowly. “I mean as virtuous.”
He made a gesture at the door. Agnolo prepared to lunge for the knife. The alarmed serving girl bustled in to take the food. She dithered once, briefly, over the spilled roast. Daniele waved her off. She retreated gratefully with her skirt’s hem clutched in her hand. “Take the rest of it and go out,” Daniele said after her.
“You don’t mean me,” blustered Agnolo.
“No, the roast. You think I am virtuous.”
“I think you are plotting against me.”
“You think I am a model citizen.” Daniele was laughing now, he was turning in a slow circle, and he was laughing, “Agnolo, have you really looked at me?”
Agnolo looked. He saw Daniele, his excellent arms spread wide. He saw Daniele, who was a head taller than him, and wore a doublet better than he could ever hope to manage. “I have seen quite a bit of you lately.”
“I am a fourth son,” said Daniele. “I will never inherit anything. I have failed to marry anyone the family wishes me to marry. I do as little work as possible. I’m not diligent enough for a Cardinal’s hat. I have had no sons, no daughters, not even natural children, who might have been acceptable. I lie about uselessly. I have no ambition in my life, and the only reason I am believed when I say anything at all is because it is known I am too simple to make anything up. And I behave badly at weddings. Agnolo. I am the family disappointment.”
These were more lies.
It must have been clear on his face. “No lie. In fact, the son of my father’s poor late notary has managed to make more of a name of himself than I. You are the most honest man in Firenze. Do you know how rare you are? My father despairs that I was not more like you. He would very much like to switch us, you know. ‘Look at what Agnolo has done with himself, Daniele. You could work that hard.’ And then I smile and he laughs it all off, because he knows I am too simple and wasteful to do anything of that sort.”
He is completely mad, thought Agnolo. He is utterly delusional. He thought of all of Daniele’s wealthy friends. His civil service… Agnolo said as much.
To which Daniele burst into another great devilish bout of laughter. “You have served as well, haven’t you? I am a young man from a good family who is a part of a certain number of guilds and who is of age. The fact that my father knows Lorenzo is also a bit of a help for how many times my name should come up. They’re drawn by lots, you know. And everyone enjoys the company of a man who is a happy fool. For all they know they can do what they want to me and I will be none the wiser.”
“You are the wiser now,” said Agnolo, who was quite aware of the danger.
“Yes, but you are the only one who knows that. Paola did, too.” Daniele’s smile faded. He looked like a man again. “And ah, yes. There is another way that I am not virtuous. I am envious. In fact, when she married you, I was so envious I could have killed you both.”
A-ha! thought Agnolo, grasping the one part of this he still understood. “So I was right.”
“Not quite,” admitted Daniele, and that was when he struck.
Agnolo was ready. At least, he would have been, but Daniele moved faster than he could have accounted for. Within a moment Daniele had grabbed the front of his collar, and with one easy tug pulled him over the stools and into one of wall hangings. Daniele’s back pressed against the woven lions. He took Agnolo’s face in his hands and Agnolo jolted, expecting a knife.
“Let me show you how sinful I have really been,” whispered Daniele, before pressing his lips to his neck, his brow, and then with great practice and greater greed, against his own slack mouth.
It took a moment to process this, and in that moment they nearly tore the hanging down. Agnolo could not see what Daniele could hope to gain from this. If he wished to refute the accusations Agnolo had laid at him this seemed like the last way to do it.
“I am not fooled,” hissed Agnolo, when he could breathe again.
“Of course not,” murmured Daniele. He sounded so pleased with himself that Agnolo knew that if he were to leave he would somehow play right into his plan. His course was clear. He could take neither his eyes nor hands off of Daniele. He ran his hand down Daniele’s chest, pressing close so he could feel for any hidden weapons. He could feel nothing but the heat from his body. The fires had been kept going, and as such the room had grown consistently hotter and smokier the longer they’d stayed there. Daniele wore too many layers. He would have to strip him down to be sure he could do no harm. He did so.
It was no mean task. His clothing was more expensive and elaborate than Agnolo’s, with many more clasp and buttons. In the end he’d settled for simply ripping the sleeves off. This was difficult, as Daniele kept squirming and laughing, trying to thwart him, trying to distract him by biting his ear and laughing. Agnolo had no choice but to press his mouth over his just to shut the sound out. Daniele occupied himself instead with mouthing back, and doing things with his tongue that Agnolo was particularly sure was meant as a diversionary tactic. It nearly worked. Very nearly. Agnolo countered this bravely by pulling him by the shoulders of his linen shirt and levering him past the curtains of bed, where he pinned him down half on and half off. He all at once was struck by the ridiculousness of the position, and the very real possibility that he could be hiding a knife beneath the spread. He began frisking the cloth.
Daniele sat up in confusion. “Agnolo,” he said, exasperated.
Agnolo glared. “Even if the rest of the world should be fooled, I never will be.”
Daniele smiled. “Yes,” he said, quietly. “I know.” Agnolo could not allow him to stay so satisfied. He grabbed him and pressed him down.
“This is immoral,” he said. Doubly, as he could feel the heat of Daniele’s willing prick through his hose. It was nestled rather comfortably against Agnolo’s thigh. It was not the weapon he was particularly expecting, but the steady jab of it worked its way hotly into his chest. “You could be tried, if any but I knew.”
Daniele stretched himself out beneath him, a willing perpetrator. “You would have to try me, and the whole of Firenze. Where did you get your contacts, Agnolo?”
“That’s not important.”
“No.” And Agnolo fought back with a sharp buck of his own hips, to let Daniele know that he was serious. Daniele seemed to understand, his face went slack. Agnolo reached for a handful of his gold-red hair, and pulled it out of its loose tail. “What’s important is you will not tell lies about this.”
Daniele said nothing, just went about worming out of his hose. Agnolo wasn’t about to let him reach for anything he didn’t know about. His hands got there first, and after a good deal of tugging and rearrangement, he had him bare as anything beneath him. Somewhere in this Daniele had been clever in that way Agnolo knew he could be: his own shirt hung around his shoulders.
Not long ago he would have found this humiliating. He had not seen him bare since boyhood. Just as he had bitterly supposed, he’d grown better into manhood than Agnolo had. His chest was covered with a light and attractive wisp of gold curls. They ran in an elegant line down his stomach to where they flourished like satyrs in the great sculptures. Agnolo found one of his hands drifting close to those curls, against the crease of his thigh, framing his dark, twitching prick like it were in a gallery. It was some comfort to find there was some softness here. Daniele was not as athletic as he’d always supposed. He had a shallow chest, one which twitched with each uneven breath as Agnolo ran his hand over doughy sides and a rather rounded belly. It was only a small comfort. Agnolo had been bony and thin haired since he had come of age. He had the perfunctory wisps about his chin, but he had little by way of form. Paola had always joked that she’d accidentally been married off to a girl.
“What lies have I to tell,” said Daniele, opening his eyes for the first time since they’d started. They were as bright as ever, but it was such a laughing brightness. Agnolo wondered how anyone might mistake him for an empty-headed wastrel. “But if it bothers you so much, I could simply ravish you.” His body rolled beneath Agnolo’s, reminding him how easily he could simply roll them both over. “You could tell your confessor that you were set upon. That you are a young innocent who was beguiled.”
“I am not a girl.” And only Paola would ever be allowed to call him one. To prove his point, he wrapped his hand around Daniele’s prick. His hands were too broad and bony to ever be mistaken for anything but a man. He gave it a quick pump, once, twice, and the way that Daniele spread out beneath him in complete and utter defeat sent a thrill through Agnolo such that he had not felt in many, many years. Strengthened in his resolve to keep Daniele like this, where he could enact no plots, he slowed his strokes, running the tip of his finger over the tip of his prick in the way he so often thumbed the tip of his pens when lost in thought. “It’s less sinful if you are not in the woman’s role.”
“That is not how I have heard it,” gasped Daniele. “But while you are deciding which is the sinning position, there is a bottle of oil on the commode. Warm it over the lamp before you use it.”
Agnolo hovered over him, doubtfully.
“And if you are so concerned that I will kill you with your breeches down, tie me to the bedposts while you do it. Just do it, and do it as fast as you are able. You are at least good for speed, yes?”
And just for that, Agnolo took his time finding his belts and lashing Daniele’s wrists to the bed. He did not think too hard about the fact that there were angels carved into the posts. He also did not think too hard about the fact he knew nothing of how to tie the sailor’s knots. Daniele did not hasten matters by choosing to flex and squirm against him as he did so. Agnolo considered binding his ankles as well. It struck him as technically unsound. Leaving Daniele, he stumbled his way to the commode, stepping in what remained of the roast along the way. He nearly fell and smashed his head tripping out of his breeches. With the onset of late evening, what light the room could keep was dim, and Agnolo was well on his way to ruining his eyes reading in the dark. He picked up a small lacquered container, the top of which was nearly chipped off. It was normally meant for hair. Agnolo suspected this was not what Daniele intended now. He warmed it over the lamp, like he’d asked. Not eager to leave his would-be murderer out of sight, he returned to the bed. He paused to untie the curtains.
“There are at least five rooms between here and the sala. The family is drunk by now,” said Daniele.
“I don’t spread lies like you,” said Agnolo, pulling the cloth shut and lying down beside him. He poured the oil into his hand. He was glad he had warmed it. It was better than anything he could afford. It smelled of lavender and something smokier. It went easy over his skin and over his prick, and he nearly lost himself in the sweet abuse of it, until Daniele kicked him.
“Still here!” he said.
“I should have tied your ankles.”
Even in the darkness, he could see those fine eyebrows jump. “Then how would you get them over your shoulders?”
It was so at odds with the wide-eyed naiveté Daniele so loved to fling around to all who did not know him that Agnolo nearly had the mind to be scandalized. The suggestion, however, was too good to pass up. It would at least prevent him from bludgeoning him to death with his toes. “You’ll do nothing,” he told him, sliding a sticky hand down between his knees, feeling around that crease that was so different from a woman’s. If Daniele’s arousal had begun to wane, it came back then with aplomb. Agnolo lifted his leg.
“Not quite,” said Daniele, shifting. “Try like this.”
“I will do it my way.”
“Your way will hurt you much more than it will hurt me. Also, the posts are oak. There will be no pulling them onto your head.”
Agnolo was not about to be fooled, but he did have to admit the way that Daniele suggested was considerably less awkward. He braced himself against the stiff mattress, and eased forward.
“God in Heaven, Paola must have gotten bored of you.”
Agnolo pressed forward hard enough to shake the bed.
“I won’t be lured,” he snarled, digging his fingers into Daniele’s hip. Daniele arched, straining his arm to cover a laugh and managing only to cackle instead. “I won’t be goaded.” He shoved his free hand up against his mouth, but only managed to keep it there long enough to get a few lashes of Daniele’s wicked, lying tongue before he needed to throw it out for support. It didn’t feel at all like with a woman. It was a different sort of pressure, a different sort of body underneath him straining to get at him, cock bumping his stomach with each roll of his hips.
“Of course you will be goaded,” laughed Daniele. “You always have been. Silly Agnolo, you never have known how not to take the world so seriously.”
“And you have never taken anything seriously at all.”
“Except my attempts on your life,” whispered Daniele, and Agnolo blood roared in his head as he said it. “Except all these times I have tried to kill you now. How many is it? You are the one keeping track. And look at how I have succeeded. You are dying already, Agnolo. I can feel you in the throes of it. You left to live without me and now you have come back to die.”
“Death is always near,” growled Agnolo. It was true. It was in the river, it was in the streets, it was on the back of a reared horse or the bedroom of the man who nearly ruined your wedding. Agnolo could not here pause to wonder how one got from one point to the next. “But I’ll keep you closer. You son of a bitch, does that tongue of yours ever stop wagging. You bastard. You cheating, lying, thieving bastard.”
“Oh yes. All of these things.”
“You might have said something.”
And then Agnolo stretched to cover his mouth with his, so that he could say nothing more.
The bells tolled in the morning hours and Agnolo di Leonetti lived, if barely. The matter had taken most of the night, and by the time he had returned home, the first blue hints of dawn had crept into the black skies over Firenze.
Giuseppe stirred at the door. He had been leaning blearily in the frame. Not the wisest of places for a nap, someone might have robbed him, or much worse. Agnolo kicked him sharply. He deserved it, for being so careless to such things.
“Mmah!” The boy drew his knife on reflex and, recognizing his master through a bleary gaze, tucked it right back into his boot. “Oh, it’s only you.”
Good, thought Agnolo, he is not a completely hopeless case. “Take those documents I gave you and burn them.” He paused. “Ah, but wait. Keep the ones that would go to my household. One cannot ever be so sure. Remember this, Giuseppe, when you are sleeping in alleys like an idiot.”
“And doesn’t it serve me right for being loyal!” yawned his apprentice. “Still, suits me you have not died. I should like to still have a roof over my head.”
“Whether you choose to use it or not,” said Agnolo, sourly.
“I choose it, I choose it!” Agnolo led him inside. “I am very much glad the attempted murder has failed. Might we find better pastimes, Master? Like starting brawls in San Marco.”
“Who is to say the attempt has failed.”
Giuseppe froze. “Eh?”
Agnolo wove his way to the study, if he was slightly unsteady it was perfectly expected from a man back from the dead. He pulled a parcel from the sleeve of the cioppa he had not worn as he’d set out the day before. He took it to the cask beneath his table, and locked this parcel tight. “Giuseppe, it goes deeper than I had thought.”
“And,” Giuseppe hesitated, unsure he wanted to know, but too curious not to ask, “how deep would this be?”
“Conspiracy,” said Agnolo, pounding his hands on the table as he was wont to do. “Daniele Bugiardini is a dangerous man. He cannot be left to his own devices. I shall have to go again a week from now. Pray for me, Giuseppe. Who’s to say I shall come back alive?”