In this story, there are two brothers. One will die and the other will live. The brother that will die is named Antoni, and the lucky one — I’ve heard some people call him that — is named Santiago.
The brothers were apprenticed to an attorney that the townsfolk called Esquire, but that the brothers called Master Vargas when he was near and Fat Toad when he was not. The Esquire’s wife, who was not fat, but so thin as to appear to be just a film of skin over angular bones, made frequent outings to Market Street, on which occasions she would paint her lean face cherry-red and smear her body with lavender-scented liquor.
With many years of menial tasks behind them — archiving the Esquire’s correspondences, copying out numberless letters to firms both at home and in the overseas Empire, and of course, sorting out the attorney’s own legal entanglements — the brothers had reason to be joyful. Their apprenticeships were nearing an end. When they signed on to train beneath Master Vargas, just boys at the time, they were promised that upon completion of their duties, they would each receive a small lump sum of silver, three boxes of sealing wax, six months’ supply of ink and ledger paper, and thirty quills. But more importantly, they would obtain a certificate that bore witness to their new status as full members of the Catalonian Guild of Attorneys, with all rights and privileges thereunto appertaining. Ample reason to be joyful.
It should be noted that Santiago and Antoni each possessed special talents that went beyond their ability to file documents and to notarize affidavits on the Esquire’s behalf. Antoni, with his curly brown hair and mild eyes, was a charming young man with a reputation among the town’s women. And when this got him in trouble, Santiago was present with a special talent of his own. Prowess in bare knuckle boxing, an unlikely skill for a young would-be attorney, coupled with a quick fencing blade, frequently allowed the two to beat a hasty retreat when nights became a little too hot at the cantina.
As I’ve said, the brothers’ apprenticeship was almost up. So near, in fact, that they had just one day remaining before Master Vargas was legally required to apply his looping signature to the appropriate lines of their certificates. It is during these twenty-four hours that our story will occur, and during which Antoni will die.
Master Vargas had come to appreciate his two young apprentices, but not, as you might expect, for their tireless work that often lasted late into the evening. Rather, he had grown accustomed to having a source of virtually free labour. He had always been a fat man, but in the ten years since the brothers signed on, he had swallowed enough crianza and crema catalana to make it difficult to rise from his chair beside the fire. The notion that the continuance of his leisure might be in jeopardy unsettled him. He of all people knew the dictates of Catalonian law, which required that he sign the brothers’ certificates. However, as an attorney, he also knew that there were ways around such inconveniences as the law.
With this in mind, the Esquire pulled the tassel of the bell beside his desk. In a few moments, Antoni appeared in the doorway of the smoky office. The Esquire seldom bothered to enter his office anymore, and it evidently surprised Antoni to see him there. Vargas, for his part, eyed Antoni with curiosity, as though he were just now seeing the young man for the first time.
“Come in,” said the attorney. He motioned to one of the padded leather chairs. “Take a seat.”
Antoni sat, folded his hands in his lap, and waited for his master to speak.
“As you no doubt realize,” said Vargas, “tomorrow you and your brother will have completed your apprenticeship. A happy day for us all. But in the meantime, I have one last task for you both.”
He wrapped his chubby fingers around a rolled parchment upon his desk, tied with a ribbon and sealed with a large red gob of wax. Antoni took the parchment, subconsciously rubbing his thumb over the seal.
“What is it?”
“A business contract, of course,” said the attorney. “I want you and Santiago to take it to the Marqués Joaquim Cibiallo de Viapampas. He is expecting you.”
Antoni rose, and bowed his head slightly. “Consider it done.”
As the young man left the office, the attorney smiled to himself. If all went as planned, after the Marqués accused the brothers of attempted fraud, Vargas would ensure they were found guilty, but have their prison sentences overturned in favour of lifelong indentured servitude. His source of endless free labour was assured.
The Marqués owned broad swaths of land near Tarragona. More importantly, he owned most of Uruguay. As such, it should not come as a surprise to learn that he lived on an estate whose grounds were so vast that visitors travelled nearly three-quarters of an hour by coach from the gate to the front door.
When they finally arrived, the brothers were met at the door by a man wearing a resplendent silk uniform that made it clear he was one of the Marqués’ many valets. The brothers never learned his name, but for the purposes of our story, we will call him Ceferino.
Ceferino inquired about their business, and learning that it was business, asked them to step in right away. He guided them down echoing hallways, past paintings of long-dead Cibiallo de Viapampases, and rooms filled with hard-looking sofas and cases of imported crystalware.
Finally, Ceferino approached a door sheathed in leather and studded with brass tacks, the tiny heads rounded like perfect rows of goose pimples. The valet knocked twice, cleared his throat, and stood with the heel of one foot lifted. He shifted his weight, dropped the heel, and lifted the other.
“Yes? What is it?” The voice behind the door was deep. If it was a flavour, it would have been raw cocoa.
The valet explained that Master Vargas’ assistants had arrived with a business contract for the Marqués to sign.
But the Marqués only said, “I am expecting no business with Vargas or his assistants. Send them away.”
Santiago, who knew his master well, rightly supposed that if he did not return that evening with a signed contract, Vargas would only send him out again the following day, whether or not his apprenticeship was complete. With this in mind, he seized the handle of the goose-pimpled door and gave it a sharp twist. Before Ceferino could stop him, he was inside the office of the Marqués.
The Marqués was in the middle of the long, well-lit room, astride a chestnut horse. The horse eyed Santiago nervously, nostrils flaring, but the Marqués hardly glanced in his direction. Instead, he raised a polished arquebus to his shoulder, sighted down the barrel, and pulled the trigger. The hammer dropped and a plume of fire poured from the trumpet. At the far end of the long hall, a fat turkey sat dumbly on a wooden post, and for a split second the bird appeared to wobble, before exploding in a shower of meat and feathers.
When the smoke cleared, the Marqués lowered the arquebus and snapped his fingers. “Another,” he cried, and a uniformed manservant emerged from a side door, holding a second fat turkey by the feet, its wings flapping and head dangling like a cooked noodle.
The servant brushed the mushy remnants off the post and attempted to secure the bird. The Marqués, meanwhile, was funnelling black powder and shot into his weapon.
Santiago spoke up. “My Lord, I have here a contract from my master, Vargas the Attorney. If you please, it will take but a moment of your time.”
The Marqués now swung the wide mouth of the arquebus in Santiago’s direction, staring at him through the round eyepiece he’d had specially fitted to the weapon. His finger caressed the trigger.
Now, if it were Antoni who stood before the Marqués, and not his brother, one might have good cause to wonder whether the issue of impending death might be resolved at this point in the story. However, we know that Santiago lives, and can reasonably assume that the Marqués eventually lowered his weapon, saying something to the effect of, “Very well, I’ll take a look at your wretched document.”
Meanwhile, in the hallway, with Ceferino greatly distracted by the possibility that his master might commit homicide, Antoni was left to gaze from one of the massive windows overlooking a garden. Below, a small fountain bubbled clear water over a path of white stones, surrounded on all sides by red and yellow flowers. And in the fountain, standing knee-deep in the water, was a young woman wearing a short white dress.
Although Antoni had seen beautiful women before, it seemed to him at that moment that this particular woman was very likely the most beautiful woman on earth. He felt, silly as it may sound, as though fate had brought him to the Marqués’ estate so that he might meet her, the day before his apprenticeship was over and his new life began. He wanted to speak to her, to tell her that he was soon to become a full member of the Catalonian Guild of Attorneys, and that he would be able to provide her with a life of relative comfort and even some luxury.
He glanced at Ceferino, and seeing that the man was still engrossed with the proceedings beyond the door, decided to quietly slip away, in hopes that he might reach the garden. Antoni knew his brother well, and sensed that he was more than a match for the Marqués, at least in legal matters. And so, careful to mute his footfalls, he disappeared down the hallway.
Inside the hall, the Marqués had dismounted, and now paced the floor, hand on the hilt of his sword. “What’s this contract all about?” he asked.
Santiago shrugged. “I don’t know, my Lord. My master sent me, and I have not read the document myself.”
The Marqués dug his horny thumb into the glob of wax and cracked it. He unrolled the parchment, crossed to a low table, and smoothed it out to read. His lips moved, and he mumbled the words under his breath.
“…on this the twenty-sixth day of June, Anno Domini Nostri Iesu one thousand five hundred and seventy three, let it be witnessed…”
Santiago paid scant attention, looking around the long hall and at the mounds of horse manure that were trampled into the rug. He glanced back through the doorway at Ceferino. Antoni was nowhere in sight.
“…touching tenures, excluding exemptions, that afford other lawful advantages and prerogatives…”
It was just a short flight of steps down the garden. A warm breeze surrounded Antoni, tossed his curly hair, and flattened his shirt against his heaving chest. She was there, just ten paces away, with her back to him. Her long, black hair fell across her white neck. He moved closer.
When he reached the edge of the fountain, she heard him. She looked up, eyes wide with surprise. Her face, thought Antoni, was even more beautiful up close. Her eyes were like the blackness of night between the distant stars.
“Who are you?” she asked. Her voice was warm and rich.
Antoni, who was very charming at all times, was exceptionally charming now, as he spoke to the young woman of her matchless beauty and fate and how happy they would be together. He told her that tomorrow he would be a free man, with a small lump sum of silver, three boxes of sealing wax, six months’ supply of ink and ledger paper, and thirty quills. But most importantly, if she accepted his proposal, he would have her as his wife.
The woman smiled. You see, she was the Marqués’ daughter, Llúcia, who was often visited by suitors from across Catalan, Aragon, Castile, and Portugal. Even the odd Moor showed up at her door from time to time, the North African sands still clinging to his robe. It was the idea of a small lump of silver that made her smile, knowing that her bed alone outweighed whatever endowment this young man might receive from his master. But his charm was surpassing, and she did not want to hurt his feelings.
Upstairs, the Marqués was scanning the final paragraphs of the document. His lips still moved, muttering the words quietly.
“…resulting in the immediate transfer of all lands and holdings of the family Cibiallo de Viapampas, including holdings in Uruguay, to the assistants of Vargas the Attorney, Antoni and Santiago Cruz…”
The Marqués looked up. His face became red, and he fixed his eyes on Santiago.
“What is the meaning of this?” He stabbed his finger at the parchment and read again. “The immediate transfer of all lands and holdings… to you?”
Santiago opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He was speechless.
“Did you think I would just sign this without reading it?” The Marqués was the colour of freshly-butchered meat. He moved towards Santiago, fingers once more on his sword. The young apprentice took a step backward, hand moving to his own hilt, ready.
Ceferino chose this opportunity to step in. “My Lord, I believe that Vargas’ other assistant is in the garden with your daughter.”
Now the Marqués stomped his boots and roared. He seized the parchment from the table, squeezed it in his massive fist, and strode towards his horse. In a moment he was in the saddle, and he spurred the animal towards the door. Santiago leapt aside, then ran after him as he charged down the hallway and stairs.
When Santiago reached the garden, the Marqués was still astride the horse, sword drawn. Antoni sat at the edge of the fountain with Llúcia, her delicate hands in his own. But now, as the Marqués shouted and bellowed and threatened to run him through, Antoni stood, face very pale.
“You miserable goat turd,” said the Marqués. His voice echoed from the high white walls. “How dare you place your hands on my daughter.”
Llúcia rose, and she scowled. “Father, put your sword away. This man has done nothing wrong.”
“He’s a peasant,” said the Marqués.
Antoni shook his head. “Please, my Lord, I’m not a peasant. Tomorrow, I complete ten years of apprenticeship beneath my master, Vargas. I will then be a full member of the Catalonian Guild of Attorneys. Don’t worry, my Lord, your daughter will never want for anything.”
The Marqués appeared to be confused. The tip of his sword drooped a bit. “What do you mean, she will never want for anything?”
“Why, we’re getting married of course.”
The Marqués looked from Antoni to Llúcia. “Is this true?”
“Yes. He proposed to me just now, and I accepted.”
Let us pause to consider our options here. Many readers are writers, and all writers are readers, at least of their own scrawl and of others’ as well if they hope to taste anything but water from their own well. So consider that Antoni will soon be dead. Who will kill him, do you suppose? To the Marqués, the young apprentice was a mere flea bite of a man, this much is true, but I will vouch that it is not the nobleman who will run Antoni through with his sword. Not the Marqués, though he appears to be the best candidate to deliver the deathblow. I also believe we can rule out Llúcia, who is genuinely, if only temporarily, charmed by the young man. Santiago is also a poor choice. Fratricide, which features regularly in Greek tragedies and literature from south of the Mason-Dixon Line, does not come into play here. It is also highly unlikely that Master Vargas or his gaunt wife will emerge with murderous intent. And thus, as it is far too late to be inserting an entirely new character, particularly one who will perpetrate something as pivotal as the murder that was foreshadowed in the earliest words of this tale, we are left with Ceferino.
Of course it was Ceferino, who had admired the young Llúcia from afar, and sometimes from quite near, but never when she was aware of his presence because of the very good reason that she could have him beaten or even killed for his voyeuristic escapades. It was the valet who dashed forward, snatched the Marqués’ sword, and stabbed Antoni in the heart. The young man died without a peep, without so much as a long agonized sigh or a cradled moment to whisper something like, “Gosh, the injustice of it all”.
Santiago was a man of action, and before his brother’s body even came to rest in the flowerbed, he had already inserted his own sword between Ceferino’s shoulder blade and his fourth vertebra. It was, legally speaking, a foul to stab your opponent in the back, especially with no warning whatsoever, but Santiago was not thinking clearly. He stood over the dying valet, eyes wide, breathing hard.
Now it was the Marqués who sprang from his saddle and snatched up the sword that Ceferino had taken from him just moments before. Revenge is a dirty business anywhere, and in Catalonia it is positively filthy.
The young apprentice parried, countered, dodged, lunged, stumbled, deflected, landed a glancing blow, received the slightest of flesh wounds, combined a downward slash with a twisting thrust, and then stood with his blade buried to the hilt in the belly of the startled Marqués.
The two men stared at one another for a long moment, and if not for the seeping patch of blood and the sword that protruded like a weathervane from his abdomen, the nobleman appeared no worse for wear. But then he fell to his backside with a thump that made the thin blade wiggle and he coughed and said, “Damn.”
His eyes were alive, and he glanced from Antoni to Ceferino to Santiago to his daughter. A quirky smile played at the corner of his lips that gradually spread across his mouth, until suddenly he was laughing and coughing blood. His hands went to his shirt, and he fumbled with the buttons for a moment before withdrawing a crumpled pale wad. Santiago realized that it was Vargas’ contract.
“So,” said the Marqués. “You still want to do business? You’re a lucky man, apprentice.”
He smoothed the parchment out on the ground, still chuckling to himself. Then he plucked a flower, held it up to his nose for a long sniff before taking it between his forefinger and thumb, like a quill. The nobleman dipped the stem in his own blood, now abundantly available, and scrawled a quick signature across the bottom of the contract. The flower trembled, and the Marqués laughed again.
“Enjoy,” he said. And then he leaned over into the fountain and died.
In the days that followed, as Santiago explored the Marqués’ financial portfolio, he learned that beneath the painted eggshell of the nobleman’s opulent lifestyle was a rotten yoke of debts that stunk all the way from Uruguay to the Spanish Netherlands to the Maghrib. Only the Catalonian holdings were real assets, and these Santiago sold at auction. Llúcia’s silver bedframe, the crystalware, the family portraits, the arquebuses, the turkeys and the house all went to the highest bidder.
Even so, there were bills to be settled. Thankfully, Santiago was sly, and though it was Vargas who had hoped to ensnare the brothers for attempted fraud, in the end it was Santiago who snared Vargas. The attorney was so astonished by his young apprentice’s leap in social standing that he neglected to carefully read the contract that he ratified with his own signature. This contract, in addition to granting full membership to the Catalonian Guild of Attorneys, also turned over to Santiago all of the Esquire’s assets, with the exception of three boxes of sealing wax, six months’ supply of ink and ledger paper, thirty quills, and a small lump of silver.
As for Llúcia, at first she found it difficult to be married to the man who had killed her father, just as Santiago found it strange to be married to the woman who had, however briefly, been engaged to his murdered brother. But even these obstacles are surmountable, and I think we can safely say that they grew to love one another deeply.
Jack Frey is a Canadian who lives in Beijing, China with his wife and two young boys. If he could choose any other place/time to live other than here/now, it would be Yuan Dynasty China/1270 A.D. Bits of his writing will appear in Shelf Life Magazine, Writers’ Bloc (Rutgers), Apathy is Easy, and Terracotta Typewriter, among others.
© 2010, Jack Frey