Author's Note: Thank you to all who have favorited/followed this story. Special thanks to Crimson cat angel and Sporter for the reviews. I apologize for the slow pace of updates. This chapter ended up being longer than I expected. I hope to have more interaction between Antonio and Lovino from now on. Also, this story may go through some editing soon (changing the plot summary to be more representative of the story, revising other things that were just badly written, etc.).
Burdens to Bear
Look now at what your impulse has done! Antonio berated himself as he searched through cluttered drawers for an ink bottle.
He had surrendered the illusion of a faceless crime the moment he followed the call in the prison. Now, the criminal had a name, a voice and a pleading gaze clouded by want. Lovino could scarcely be called a "criminal"; the term "victim" seemed much more fitting.
Snatching up a pot of ink, Antonio set about composing a new order. His hand shook as he scrawled out a series of rambling instructions as to how the boy was to be pardoned, while the Chief Officer himself would pay whatever fines for the crime. All the while, the image of Lovino crouched in the filthy prison cell haunted the Spaniard's thoughts.
Lovino was a sight that could not be ignored, perhaps because he had been so frequently overlooked. Antonio was not ignorant of the existence of poverty; he had seen its bitter fruit scattered along the streets. Still, he had never been so bluntly confronted by indigence until he encountered its ghost in Lovino. The Spaniard could not help but wonder how the prisoner was still alive. Every bit of his physique, from his thin – no, skeletal – frame to the way he shivered from malady, or hunger, or whatever other ill, spoke of death. It was an atrocious denial of life.
And what had Antonio done to help? He had decided to tighten the noose around Lovino's neck to salvage his status. The guilt was scalding and would have driven Antonio mad had it been too late to mend the error. There was already enough blood on his hands, and the "law" would undoubtedly bring him fountains more in time, but he would not bear a single drop of Lovino's. He was determined to save this one fragment of purity.
Once he had finally finished writing, Antonio looked down at the scrawl before him. By the standards of respectable society, it was an abomination. Even if the recipient could miraculously decipher the scribbled lines of ink blotted with fresh drops of sweat, the content of the decree was absurd.
Antonio wondered for a moment what his superiors would think of his blunder. Their impression of him had already sunk to an abysmal level of late, not that this came as any surprise. It was common knowledge that the young Spaniard had bought his position with the gift of patrimony and a bizarre stretch of luck early on in his career. That secret was disclosed, but Antonio cared little; there were more pressing secrets to secure.
He had barely begun to compose a more presentable copy of the letter when he heard a sharp knock at the door. Cursing under his breath, he ran a tired hand through his hair and called out:
"It isn't locked!"
The door opened with a creak followed by the hollow sound of footsteps striding across the room. Antonio remained hunched over his desk, his pen digging into the fresh paper with frantic markings. The footsteps stopped a yard away and Antonio paused, waiting for a proper greeting. Upon receiving none, he groaned and set his pen down.
"I am in the middle of some very important business," Antonio said.
"Perhaps that would explain your lack of courtesy today, Signore Carriedo."
No voice could have been more unwelcomed. Gritting his teeth, Antonio rose from his seat and stalked over to face the visitor. Puerile as it was, he took special care to physically look down on the other man, even if he was only an inch or two taller at most.
"I don't remember you saying anything about coming here today, Signore Kirkland," Antonio said.
"I doubt knowing about it would have made you any happier to have me," Arthur replied. "And I thought I talked to you about addressing me as 'Mister Kirkland'."
"We are in Italy, are we not, Arthur?" Antonio retorted. "But now's no the time to argue about names and languages. I have some very pressing business to finish."
"You've grown much more responsible than when we last met, haven't you?" Arthur said.
"Well, it's rather hard to work with you poking your nose into my office whenever I'm in the middle of something!" Antonio snapped. "So, what have you come for this time?"
"Oh, they wanted me to check on your… work ethic, shall we say. Just to make sure you're maintaining a respectable reputation. We've had our doubts lately, and the recent word about your wavering judgment has gotten quite a few people worried, not that I expected much more of you."
"I still don't see the point of you barging in here."
"Well, I actually wasn't planning on speaking with you today, until I heard some very fascinating news about your recent 'change of heart'."
Antonio gestured for the other man to elaborate. However, Arthur seemed to have no intention of doing so. Instead, he sighed heavily and set about brushing dust off of his coat, as though such a task was much more intriguing than any conversation he could be having with the Spaniard in front of him.
"Would you care to explain what this 'fascinating news' was about?" Antonio seethed.
"I spoke with that boy, Paolo, in the entrance hall," Arthur said, his mouth curling into a smile. "He said you were acting peculiar today. It seems you've taken to wielding your albeit limited authority with new… austerity… perhaps, what would come across to some as cruelty."
"What makes you say that?" Antonio asked, though he already knew the answer.
"There was a young man arrested today for theft. If what I heard is true, he's received a very heavy punishment by the decree of a certain Signore Carriedo. You've surprised me, Antonio. I never thought you'd have the audacity to do anything of the like!"
Antonio felt his skin prickling with ire. Still, he tried with all his strength to calm himself. He could imagine nothing worse than attracting a crowd to his office with a shouting match.
"I have some disappointing news for you then," he said.
"How typical," Arthur said, frowning. "I suppose I ought to hear you out anyway."
"I've… reconsidered my decision concerning the thief," Antonio said. "I was in the middle of writing a new statement when you interrupted."
Arthur narrowed his eyes. He had evidently found his meeting with Antonio distasteful from the start, but this turn of events had sparked a new level of displeasure.
"What sort of statement?" he asked, already despising the answer.
"A pardon," Antonio replied.
"A pardon?" Arthur repeated, aghast.
"Yes, and I'd like very much for you to leave me alone to finish it now," Antonio said, nodding at the door. "Good day, Signore."
With that, the Spaniard returned to the unfinished letter. He could feel Arthur's glare boring into his neck.
"What in the world possessed you to do something so utterly dimwitted?!" Arthur exclaimed, unable to control himself any longer.
"I am free to do whatever I see fit," Antonio said. "And it isn't your place to tell me otherwise."
"It's an abomination to all respectable use of authority!" Arthur protested. "Be sensible!"
"I will use my authority as I deem just. What use is authority otherwise?"
"Continue using it as you 'deem just' and soon the power won't be yours to abuse anymore."
Antonio said nothing in response. The same persistent fears he had just managed to subdue had been awoken once more, and both men knew it.
"How much are you willing to gamble that your family name will save your title, Carriedo?" Arthur leered. "Word is your superiors have already begun to realize your ineptness. Say you drop a few ranks below your current post. What use will you be to us then?"
"I'm aware of the rumors, Arthur," Antonio said. "I can manage my own repute perfectly well."
"Then why toss away this chance to save yourself?" Arthur said. "It's selfish of you, really. The stakes are high for all of us."
"There will be other chances," the Spaniard replied at length. "I can let this one go for Lovino's sake."
Upon hearing the unfamiliar name, Arthur's rage dissolved into confusion. The change was brief, however, for the Englishman quickly masked his baffled expression with one of skepticism.
"For whose sake?" he questioned.
"The young man accused of the theft," Antonio continued, silently cursing himself for mentioning the boy.
"You met with him?"
"I did briefly. Just out of curiosity, nothing more."
Fully prepared to defend himself, Antonio glowered at the Englishman, daring his opponent to interrogate him further. Arthur, however, did not respond with another question. Instead, he walked over to the window, and stood there, staring at the curtains as though they were some source of ingenious inspiration.
"Well?" Antonio called out impatiently. "Can I continue with my work then?"
"You said the thief in question is a young man?" Arthur said after a long pause.
"How would I know? Twenty? Younger than that, maybe? I don't see why it would matter to you!"
"He didn't mention any relatives? A guardian, perhaps?"
"He said he had a brother, a younger brother if I recall correctly…"
At last, Arthur turned away from the curtains to face the Spaniard. There was something unnerving about his grin.
"I believe Signore Marchesi paid you a visit last night," he said.
"I… he did…" Antonio faltered, but hastily regained control when he saw the Englishman smirk. "He did visit me."
"I assume he told you of his unusual request."
Again, Antonio nodded for the other man to continue, but Arthur seemed determined to prolong his explanation as long as possible. He had found himself another object to toy with while he stalled and was now examining the elegant watch strapped around his wrist with muted fascination. Antonio had seen the trinket many times, but he had never found it quite so irritating before.
"Well?" Antonio growled. "Your point?"
"Don't you see it, Carriedo?" Arthur exclaimed, finally looking up from his watch. "A young man around twenty years of age, no connections – no significant connections, at least – I do think Signore Marchesi will be delighted with the fit!"
Antonio blanched. He could feel a chill creep over him as his mind raced from one terrible solution to another.
"I cannot," he said in a quavering voice he did not recognize as his own. "I cannot… the boy… Lovino…"
"By God, Carriedo!" Arthur said. "Consider the perfection of it all! What is the boy to you now? Let him go if you will, let him rot in jail if you prefer that! Either way, you will be wasting a valuable chance! What will you do then? Conjure up another youth on the spot?"
Arthur's voice was rising with a type of excitement Antonio had rarely seen in the Englishman. There was an eerie quality about kind the tone that made the Spaniard even more wary of his visitor.
"What if I were to lose this chance?" Antonio questioned. "You would lose nothing."
"Oh, but others would," Arthur replied. "Others whose happiness I certainly do care about much more than yours. So in the end, our interests are all tied together. Your own interests are quite inseparably linked to our success in this endeavor, after all."
Antonio felt his head spinning. His thoughts had turned to a blur of responsibilities and orders with the images too chaotic to decipher. Still, one vision remained clear amidst the havoc. There was a mansion overlooking the sea and a young woman by its grand entrance. A boy was playing by her side. He was already three years old. Perhaps he remembered his uncle, perhaps he had forgotten long ago. There was no sure way to tell…
"What will you have me do then?" Antonio asked, meeting Arthur's ecstatic smile with a cold glare.
The remainder of their conversation was brief. Having secured his best interests, Arthur appeared to have grown tired of his game of stalling. After he had settled his plans one final time, the Englishman left, and Antonio alone once more.
The remains of the unfinished pardon lay burning in the fireplace. The ravenous flames cackled with pleasure as they devoured the parchment. Antonio marveled over how such an ordinary sight could mirror the fury of hellfire so flawlessly. The demons of the law had broken loose and it would take a great deal of denial to subdue them. Such was the burden of authority.
It was near dusk and the encroaching night had already engulfed half of the prison in darkness. Unable to see anything beyond his cell, Lovino had begun to listen more keenly to his surroundings. At least, he hoped that was all that had happened.
Nearly two days had passed since his arrest and the state of his confinement grew more unsettling with every hour. He was now far too familiar with the jail's eerie melody: the heavy breathing of another prisoner farther within, the echo of stern voices arguing upstairs, and the occasional muffled prayer of someone struggling to realize their solemn fate. Lovino could ignore these disturbances if he tried; he had dealt with worse before. There was, however, one sound that tormented him despite all his efforts to drive it away.
At irregular intervals, the usual lament of the prison would be interrupted by a distant, metallic tapping. It was very faint and if detected could be easily dismissed at first, but its nature changed with each repetition. Perhaps it was the hollow ring that provided the haunting effect, or perhaps it was the simplicity. Regardless, Lovino was convinced of the sound's malice. He had spent the last hour pouring over the source and had come to the conclusion that someone upstairs was constructing a coffin, hammering one nail in at a time. The project was nearing completion. Soon, it would be needing a corpse…
The quixotic fancy within him which inexplicably refused to die attempted to console him, echoing Carriedo's reassurance that he need not fear an execution. There was something amiss about that man, something Lovino could not yet fully decipher. He had encountered countless tricks and lies throughout his life, but Antonio was more than just another conman. No, Antonio presented something entirely new to the Italian youth, and like all unfamiliar things, it was frightening.
His thoughts were interrupted by voices echoing down the staircase, accompanied by the jingle of keys. Peering into the darkness, he saw the silhouette of two men making their way towards him. Lovino crept towards the barred door, listening to their conversation, a sense of dread rising within him.
"Wonder what's the matter," came the hoarse voice of one of the men. "He's been in an awful mood of late."
"I doubt it's anything out of the ordinary," replied the other. "You're new 'round here, so you don't know how he is."
"He was quite genial when I first met him at the beginning of this month, Rossi," argued the first man. "As a matter of fact, he struck me as rather… cheerful. I suppose I was mistaken. Wouldn't be the first time."
"Dammit, Lorenzo. That's just what I'm talking about! He's been like that for as long as I've known him, mild mannered for the most part, but a real heap of trouble to deal with when he's in a bad mood… though I can't deny that this was a bit unusual even for him. Wonder what set him off…"
"Bad news from Spain perhaps? I believe he received a letter the other day."
"I can't say. I don't know much about his private affairs. He really isn't half as open as he likes people to think he is, Carriedo. Touch the wrong subjects and you'll see."
The two men came to a halt in front of Lovino. The one called Lorenzo looked down at the prisoner and shook his head. The look of pity in his grey eyes made Lovino shudder. Pity was, as Lovino was well aware, an exorbitant emotion, so much so that men were loath to gift sympathy on another lest the misfortune at hand was truly disastrous.
The distant hammering from above began once more. The undertaker was working tirelessly. His project was already late. Eighteen years late.
It was nearing nine o'clock in the evening, an uncomfortable hour to be stuck in a dim office. Most of the other officials had left hours ago. Few had come to investigate why Signore Carriedo was so inclined to stay behind. Even then, they questioned him not out of concern, but more out of suspicion or hunger for gossip. Carriedo was an eccentric fool; that was all. There was no need for concern.
Antonio glanced once more at the wooden clock pinned against the wall and groaned. The prison was a dreadful place past midnight. At least, he thought it was. He had never investigated the theory, but there was evidence enough to believe in it. There were stories of criminals who, afflicted by some malady, died the night before their trial, forever starving their souls of justice. Antonio had never seen a specter and had no desire to do so. He was haunted enough as it was.
Still, Antonio could not bring himself to leave yet. He had yet to find the reason, but guessed that it was likely an unpleasant cause. For now, he settled for substitute reasons, insignificant chores that had lingered in the back of his mind for months now. He had occupied the last hour "organizing" his desk into a new mess of papers and was now "organizing" the rest of his office in a similar manner.
He reached the bookshelf and began to rearrange volumes arbitrarily. This activity would likely lead to great difficulty in finding necessary books in the future, but Antonio did not care. He would soon have the opportunity to move each book back to its original spot, thus stalling more time for whatever he was waiting for.
There was an empty space at the corner of one shelf that made the rest of the row tip awkwardly to one side. Antonio inspected it curiously, trying to recall what was missing. He remembered reading an old novel downstairs earlier that day and decided to retrieve it. There was nothing more worthy of his time at the moment.
Descending the staircase, he attempted to recall the title of the novel. It was a shame to forget, for the book had been an intriguing read. Perhaps it was Wealth and Order or the other way around or…
A muffled scream pierced the air. Antonio nearly tripped down the last steps in shock. The shriek was followed by another, mingled with a string of unintelligible words. There was the swift crack of leather striking flesh, met by another anguished cry.
The pattern continued, beating against Antonio's skull. The Spaniard winced and tried desperately to set his thoughts on the missing book. He still had not remembered its title. How unjust! The author had gone through such pains to compose the masterpiece and Antonio could not even get his mind around the title!
Another scream echoed throughout the building. Then came the whiplash, the crying, the pleading, the guilt. Antonio turned to the stairwell leading down to the prison cells in horror. He had dealt orders for torture, executions and the like before – it was his duty – but he had never encountered the product until now. Society mandated that he should be proud; any man should be proud to see the fruit of his labors.
Instead, Antonio was disgusted, disgusted with the law that lauded sadism, disgusted with those who pushed him to obey the law, disgusted with himself for heeding them. In this state of madness, he rushed down the lonely stairwell, past the rows of cells to the source of the noise.
The screaming had dwindled to whimpering, and the occasional strangled sob. Still, it was a sign of life, and as long as that endured, redemption was not out of reach.
Lovino was drenched in it and there was more still to come. His throat was raw from screaming, his vision blurred by agonized tears. All he could make out was the shadow of the raised whip before the monster bit into his back again, followed by searing pain, and the replenished wave of red.
His mind wandered from his brother, famished and alone, to his present torment. They would both die the same way, the exact way Lovino had feared in his early youth and now anticipated with numb realism. What came after death was uncertain, but life was clear and predictable. The poor were born into deprivation and shame, and as they grew to whatever meager age fate allotted, they were afflicted by different personas of Poverty. With Poverty came ignominy, which stalked the poor to their graves. It was simple really.
The whip rent through his flesh again and Lovino gasped. He sunk against the whipping post where his hands were suspended above his head. Another lash. He had lost count now amidst the anguish. It didn't matter; he doubted he'd last until the final stroke.
He must have fainted, for the pain, the visions of blood and the crack of the whip faded at once. When Lovino came to himself, the ordeal was finally over. One of the guards, Rossi he believed, was untying Lovino's hands. The whip lay furled into a loop, hanging against the wall, weeping scarlet tears.
"You've got parents with money around here?" Rossi asked.
Lovino shook his head. Rossi exhaled heavily and said:
"You've got anyone you know with money around here?"
"No," Lovino murmured. "No one here."
"Someone out of town then? Farther north in Naples? Outside Naples?"
"Dammit!" Rossi cursed, turning to his companion, Lorenzo, who was leaning against the wall. "What did I tell you? Carriedo's got no sense in him!"
"Calm down!" Lorenzo hissed. "He hasn't left yet. He's up in his office, but at the rate you're going…"
"Fine then," Rossi snapped, facing Lovino again. "Well, boy, looks like we'll have to wait till morning to see how the court wants to settle this, if it goes that far, that is."
Settle this. Settle what? Lovino couldn't imagine there being anything more to be done, any further punishment beyond the horrors he'd just endured.
"But I am free now," he said, half to himself.
"I suppose no one explained the whole issue to you," Rossi said. "It's not as though Carriedo would sink low enough to run his own errands for once. The story goes like this. You robbed two gentleman of fifteen piastras. It'd be absurd for nobles not to expect monetary compensation of some sort. So, here it is: a fine of sixty piastras, to be paid in exchange for the culprit's freedom. Doesn't matter who pays it, so long as we get all sixty in the end."
"Sixty piastras," Lovino whispered. He had never owned half that amount. Obtaining the full value of the fine at once would be near impossible had he been given a year of freedom to earn it.
"I can't," he protested. "Please Signore! I…"
"It's not my decision," Rossi sighed. "If you must pick a fight with someone, go plead with Carriedo."
"He has a brother," Lorenzo interjected. "You have a brother, boy, don't you? You spoke of him when you came here. Perhaps he can assist you?"
"Feliciano?" Lovino cried. "He's only twelve!"
"I was working long before I was twelve!" Rossi said. "You're all the same, you lazy brats, just lying around the streets begging for…"
"Enough, enough," Lorenzo said. "Let us finish this business now so that we can go home. I'm sick of this foul place!"
After a few more heavy moments of protest, Lovino tried, with difficulty to get to his feet. He hissed in pain as his torn back stung more with every movement. He took several small steps with difficulty, before collapsing against a nearby table, clinging to the leg for support. Lorenzo lifted him up and half carried the youth the rest of the way.
The old prison cell Lovino had spent the past nights in seemed tighter now. In the past hour, its wall had grown thicker and its bars firmer. Lovino was dropped against the straw bed in the corner. Soon, the material was blooming with scarlet clouds.
Lovino watched the guards lock the door and depart. Rossi mused about whether or not it was too late for a drink. He needed a drink after all that trouble. Oh, how he had suffered! The thought turned grief to rage, and in a desperate attempt to escape the shame before he died, Lovino shouted after his captors:
"The fine must be paid? I will meet you bastards in Hell whether it's paid or not!"
There were new footsteps coming down the stairs. Lovino half-hoped to see Rossi appear at the entrance so that he could unleash a full tirade. Instead, he saw a familiar Spaniard staring back at him. The conversation with Carriedo floated back to Lovino like a spiteful, hideous bird:
"You will have me killed."
"No, no. I would never do that."
"You lie to me."
"Now, what would I gain from that?"
"What would you lose from that?"
"I'd lose your trust?"
"You lied to me, Signore," Lovino said. "Now what have you to lose?"
Author's Note: I'd love to know what people think of what's going on! Reviews are welcome! If there's something that you feel could be better, I'll see what I can do. All feedback is greatly appreciated.
I apologize for any historical inaccuracies with the currency value amongst other things.