Excerpt from “The Tenebrist”

 

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The remainder of the afternoon was spent trying to convince Michel of his folly, but deep down I’m sure we all knew it was futile. Only Onorio seemed unconcerned. “Did you see the look on the boy’s face?” he said with a snide grin. “He isn’t even going to come. Don’t worry.”

But I was worrying, and I knew the Cesari brothers were too. They had just nursed Michel back from the brink of death, and I don’t imagine they were keen to see their recovered patient cut to ribbons over a ten scudi bet. Thinking I might be able to talk some sense into him, I took Michel aside and pleaded with him, using every appeal I could think of, but Michel was locked, single-minded; he looked at me as though I was nothing but a particularly annoying insect.

The light in the sky began to wane, and my anxiety grew to a towering edifice. Michel began making his way back to the courts, and though he did not make any indication that he wished us to accompany him, we all followed closely; if anything should go wrong, it would be better for all of us to be there to prevent or correct it. The thought of Michel slowly bleeding to death, alone in the middle of the ball courts, was too much for me to bear.

When we first arrived, I was relieved to see the courts empty of people; perhaps Onorio had been right, and Ranuccio was a coward after all. My relief, however, was short-lived, for after a few minutes Ranuccio and his friends—more of them than earlier—strode onto the court, full of false bluster, though I could see that Ranuccio was pale and had already begun to sweat.

It started with little fanfare as both men raised their swords. I backed away, wanting more than anything to cover my eyes, but unwilling to do so. If my love were to die before me, I would be dishonoring him by looking away.

The first clash of the metal blades was deafening, and there was a general murmur among the assembled bystanders. I suppose they were all wondering, as I was, how an innocent game had come to this, to the point where death hovered in the air.

Ranuccio was obviously frightened, but he fought well. Michel was strangely calm, wielding his sword in the cavalier way he handled his brush, confident to the point of callousness. He fought now as if he had no fear of dying at all.

Ranuccio made a lunge and Michel grunted; I gasped as I saw blood bloom on the sleeve of his white shirt. But it appeared a superficial wound, and only served to make Michel fight back more aggressively, pressing forward into Ranuccio’s range with his chin thrust out.

The sun had nearly sunk behind the horizon and the two men’s faces were nothing but shadowed blurs. Other than the clanging of their swords and the ragged huffs of their breathing, the courts were engulfed in a pocket of silence.

Ranuccio had almost got another blow in, at the chest this time, which likely would have been fatal, but Michel blocked it, only just. Both of them were getting tired, but only Michel seemed to retain that cold but somehow hellish glint in his eye.

A moment later, in the space of an eyeblink, Michel had fairly leaped forward and struck at Ranuccio.

The blow was low, a clean, deep slash on Ranuccio’s thigh, and the boy crumpled to the ground with a wail. The blood was immediate and copious, and I was horrified, but also exultant, for Michel had won, and with only minor wounds. I took a step forward, whether to congratulate Michel or help tend to Ranuccio I didn’t know. But then Michel’s head snapped up and his eyes met mine. I stopped in my tracks, terrified by what I saw there.

It seemed a very long time that he and I stared at each other over the fallen form of Ranuccio, though in reality it must have been only a few seconds. In Michel’s steady gaze I saw reflected all of the demons that haunted him, all of the troubled history between us. I saw melancholy and madness, and most frightening of all, I saw a sort of resignation, a recognition that the demons were too powerful, and that he wasn’t going to fight them anymore. There was a sense that this moment was one that could never be turned back from.

And then, very deliberately, Michel turned his gaze upon Ranuccio, bleeding and cowering at his feet. A long moment passed in which time seemed to have stopped altogether, and then he drew back his sword, and completely ran the boy through.

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