“Minutes… they are the easiest to kill,” he whispered. His voice was thick with the drowsiness of spent passion; I thought he had fallen asleep, and felt grateful that he was staying awake with me a little longer. “You need something sharp… Cut their throats. Hit them on the head. Hard and accurate. Break their necks.”
I remember thinking that it was an odd thing for him to talk about, this killing. So I lay quite still, on my back, focusing on the cloud of diamonds that was the chandelier above the bed. I had just been made love to for the first time.
I was seventeen years old.
“They are quick, the minutes especially. They like a game… they run through the halls of palazzi, excited by the chase… A little like you, zucchero.”
I remember thinking that this saccharine description did not sound like me at all.
“But you haven’t really killed people,” I said, rolling to my side and pressing against his body. I studied his face for an answer. His eyes were closed, his muscled chest rising and falling. He did not look peaceful.
“Not people. Their time.”
He sat up suddenly, pushing the sheets aside.
“You talk too much, boy.”
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry… please stay.” The thought of him leaving was intolerable. I felt stupid; I felt vulgar; I had ruined the enchantment of our evening.
Half-dressed, he turned to face me. His legs stood thick in velvet stockings, his shirt an extravagance in silk over his torso.
“How old do you think I am?”
He laughed and fastened his shirt, his hands moving swiftly and with practice.
“Ninety. I am ninety years old.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. So I said nothing.
He turned again and looked at me, staying very still. I felt stripped soul-deep by his gaze – but there was nothing lascivious in it anymore. It was a searching so hungry it made me draw the sheets to cover my naked form. I did not know what he wanted. I did not know anything.
If there are words to capture the meaning in his exhalation – the exhaustion, the disappointment – I do not know them. I remember feeling like a stone in the wake of it: the smallest, most unlovely thing. I had done something wrong or failed to do something entirely.
“You never give it back to me,” he whispered. “None of you do.”
“Give what back?”
I could see the effort of him thinking, trying to define. His fingers made claws and he raised his arms, finally drawing a ragged shape in the air that outlined my form. I sat up, the covers falling down to my waist.
“Would you like to dine with me this evening?” My words came in a rush, and kept coming. Anything to make him stay. “Shall we walk again by the canal? Will you see the operetta with me tonight?”
I listed all the things we had been doing together the last few weeks of that summer – the best, then, of my young life.
“I don’t want that.” He spoke the words as if imparting news of a death. I understood, young and naïve as I was. I understood then.
“Will I see you again?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
He did not look at me. “No.”
He was inspecting himself in the mirror that stood beside the bed. We were in a hotel I could never afford. He would not have me in his home. I did not even know where in the city he lived.
“It’s a terrible thing to be old,” he said.
“You look beautiful.” I whispered. “You do not look old.”
“But I am, I am, I am.”
He whirled to me suddenly, gripping my face with one hand.
“I have stolen years with my work, you fool! Look into my eyes.”
I did. I remember seeing something bitter, a world of bitterness that was him and that pulled in everyone he loved or tried to. There was something broken and cold and monstrous in his expression. “I’m being a teacher to you, boy. I am being the teacher that I never had.”
He released me. The pressure of his grip warmed my cheeks; in a horrid way, I missed the contact as soon as it was severed. He pulled a bottle from an inside pocket of his jacket. I saw an idea, vividly, alight in him. A brutal smile broke his features.
“Do you want revenge? Do you want something for the pain I have caused you? For the pain others will cause you? Take this.” He held out a small, tear-shaped glass vial. It held a few thimblefuls of a bilious green liquid.
I see that now as the moment where my destiny forked, where I could have taken one path or the other – or perhaps it only seems that way, looking back after all these years. Perhaps I am deluded. Perhaps there was never any choice at all. “Take it,” he told me, pushing it into my palm. I could not meet his gaze; there was something shameful in this taking. “Now, I am only going to say this once so listen carefully. That is acida notte” – he raised a hand at my exclamation – “…yes, the philter of legend. And yes it is true. Look at my face. It is true.” Silence hardened for an awful moment between us. “This is how you use it… and this is how you synthesize it.”
When he was through explaining, I wept into my hands. None of it seemed real, or like it could be real. It was too terrible.
“I have given you the final ingredient for the philter: pain. The bitterness of the memory of this day. Keep it in your heart: turn it into power. It is how people like us survive. I will be your wound, my boy. Keep me close.”
Morning bled yellow in the sky beyond the window. He left.
I tried to look for him. I roamed the city, asking at the places we had visited, and was turned away with scorn and anger. Theaters, cafés, places filled with people worthier than I – an orphan, or at least that was how I like to imagine myself. My family were far away and had not wanted me. I had no-one – and so I clung fiercely to the men I courted. I just needed one relationship that lasted. One would be enough: something in which I could be held, consumed in love, never having to worry about loneliness again. Something to prove him, my wound, wrong. That I was not unlovable. That I was worthy of being held. A lover who would say yes, you are mine and mine alone, and I and yours alone, and I will stay.
I learned from my first that they never stayed.
On my twentieth birthday – three years after I met him – I used the philter. It was for a small, petty job: a disgraced husband wanted to age his rival a few years. So I did it. It was confusing at first. Frightening. I fell as if in a stupor, waking to a glittering and unfamiliar realm: the place where the time lived. I learned that my lover had been right: minutes were the easiest to kill, because they were small, and fragile. When the philter wore off, I was pulled back into the physical realm gasping, exultant, soaked in my own sweat. And the target I had killed the years from had aged that many years, instantly.
I enjoyed the killing. And I was good at it.
I took years from others, and their years sloughed off me; at the age of twenty-five, my body was smooth and slender, with the faintest beds of muscles on my long limbs. My legs were fast; my eyes keen. I aged another ten years – and my body stayed the same.
Years were the most common prey, and troublesome at first. They were giants in the temporal realm: usually twice the height of a man, sometimes more, sometimes less, and while slow, they were hardy. I found new ways to kill them, with bombs and knives and poisons.
A year from a hated father-in-law.
A spinster who had destroyed the dreams of her student, and from whom I took two years.
Even a wealthy schoolboy, bitter, who stole some of his parent’s gold and paid me to age a hated schoolmate five years. I remember the screams of the boy’s parents when they woke to find an adolescent in their child’s bed; I did not stay to watch the consequences.
In time, I forgot my real age. I saw society pass before my eyes and I enjoyed the watching. I traveled through the world as a ghost. I saw buildings rise and fall, the styles subtly changing. I changed my dress to match the latest fashions. Now silk, now velvet, then back to silk: cloaks, gloves, stockings, tunics. I revolved in a glittering world of my own, my only reality. I made and remade the philter with the horrible ingredients he had told me the secret of all those years ago. I became an alchemist, a profumiere, a cavaliere. An assassin of time.
And each time I worked, each time I drank the philter, I saw his face from that night when I was seventeen: the sweat on his chest making the skin shine, and dead worlds behind his eyes as he told me no, he would not stay.
Looking at this profession with a stranger’s eye, one might think it a fair, even attractive prospect: gaining time for ourselves by taking that of others, like a kind of vampiro. But the opposite is true. It gives us more years to be tortured by the bitterness that led us along this path. It builds a great hall for the monsters of our regret. I held bitterness close in my heart, like he told me. I made my wound my identity and loved it as fiercely as I could bear.
The parchment in my hand – kissed with the red wax of the Marchesa’s seal, flush with the rose tones of her favored scent – would have me kill five years from her husband, Marchese Federico Di Lasciare. It was a large quarry, one of the largest I had ever been commissioned to hunt. The script was harsh and ran ragged on the page, as if written in fury or after an excess of wine. Come to the Palazzo Lasciare at sunfall, the note read. I will be in the mezzo ballroom on the second floor.
I dressed in my finest: a tunic embroidered with spun gold, lambskin boots, my head aureoled with a silk hood the edges of which were traced with tiny black diamonds. I left in the drowsing part of the day, when the city rested through the warm hours between luncheon and the bustle of afternoon.
A towering, curved thing with the sheen of clean bone, the Palazzo was organized around a central rotunda girdled by balustrades and curving forms of cherubic flesh carved from the purest marble. Columns reared like gods around me as I ascended the steps of the entrance.
The place was quiet, the air heavy and languid. As I ascended the first stairwell, the floors became quieter still, as if the building swallowed sound from its topmost reaches.
I found my client in a cavernous ballroom on the upper floor, as she had said I would. Her scent announced her presence before I saw her. The air was garlanded with heady notes of rose and fuschia, and something else, something sharper, less honeyed but all the more alluring for it. She stood before a fresco of a woman lamenting on the shores of a verdant island. Shimmering threads, picked out in gold leaf, curled around the pearlescent skin of the painted figure; the aspect was upraised in an anguish captured with fierce, sanguine strokes.
“The sorceress who was no sorceress, who made the mistake of thinking that her love could halt the fading of a man’s desire.”
She turned at the sound of my voice.
A delicate-looking doll of a woman, there was a sadness to the Marchesa that I recognized all too well. Her flesh was pale amber against the fuchsia of her gown. Her cheeks though, were flushed, her pupils wide and black. She held a crystal goblet in each hand.
“She should never have loved him, then? The hero who slew the beast in the labyrinth?” The syllables of her speech fell in odd, wavering patterns.
“No. She should have let him stay lost forever and starve in the dark, adding his bones to those of the men who came before him.”
“Your profumo is exquisite, Marchesa.”
“It is my own creation,” she said and withdrew from me, unsteady on her feet. “I would see who I am employing.” I swept back my hood with both hands, the diamonds tinkling. She cackled, and there was fear in the sound. “You are a boy, a whelp. How old are you?”
“I am sixty years old,” I lied. I was probably older. The truth was that I had stopped caring.
The Marchesa’s eyes met mine, finally focusing. Her expression gave nothing away – yet the goblets wavered in her hands for the slightest moment.
“It is true, then,” she said finally. “Your profession robs you of years.”
Yes: my skin was smooth and unlined, my eyes clear green, the downy beginnings of a beard curving beneath my rounded jaw. Disoriented, she looked from one drink to the other. “Here,” she said, finally handing me the one most full. “Saluti.” She raised her goblet.
“Saluti.” I sipped the wine, watching her over the rim. She drank deep, tilting her head back. “This is good.” The wine had notes of chocolate and, again, something bitter; my mouth was warm with the aftertaste.
“Thank you. I added a philter of my own to supplement the flavor.” She wiped moisture from her lips with her fingertips. “I suppose I should introduce myself. My name is -”
“Why five years?” I said.
She paused; she looked suddenly young in her uncertainty, the anger ebbing for the briefest moment.
“Because he has wasted half a decade of my life – my best years! – and he must suffer the same fate. My so-called husband.” She threw back her head and laughed, unsteady on her feet. “I have my profumi. I have my philters. I try to make the most of the days. But I have not known love.”
I tried to recall what I had heard about the Marchesa and Marchese di Lasciare. A handsome general, decorated in the war, had brought home a woman from abroad: a rare beauty who was the model of grace in all matters of culture. I hadn’t cared to remember any other details. People, to me, were the contents of their mansions in the temporal realm: crystalline structures housing the time left to every living soul, and populated with denizens as strange and frightening as the kaleidoscope of human experience itself. They were nothing else.
With a start I realized that she was still speaking. “You do realize,” I interrupted, “that it is a trauma for the body of the victim to take so much time. When I kill five years in the temporal realm, he will age five years in the physical realm – this one – instantly.” I snapped my fingers for effect, taking another sip of wine as I watched her expression open in anxiety. It was a cruel joke that the reverse process – the gaining of years – was an equally rapid regeneration, but not a fatal one.
“He has… I know he is different. I always knew. But this last trip he returned with… boys. Young men. He brought them into our home. Into my home!” Her accent grew thicker as she raised her voice in a shout. “He has made a fool of me in front of everyone. It is too much. He must pay. And then I can leave.”
She turned away, the movement of her gown agitating a sickly-sweet breeze.
“Will you take the job or not?” she said finally.
I drank, considering.
“When?” I murmured.
“Tomorrow night. There will be a ball.”
I thought of the years this would take from me. If I succeeded, I would be young, a youth. But the payment would be worth it. It would be a rebirth perhaps, a new beginning… I almost laughed at myself for indulging in such reverie. Of course, nothing would change. I would still be unlovable, inside, but in a younger body, and that would be the only difference. I would still kill the time of others. And I would be wealthy beyond anything I had ever known.
I raised the glass.
“Tomorrow night,” I confirmed.
We were on a mezzanine above the ballroom floor, the Marchese and I. People thronged in the rotunda below: nobles from all over the city. The Marchesa moved among the crowd, laughing too loudly at their pleasantries, her hands shaking as she clashed glasses in toast after toast and other such sycophantry. She did not look at us once.
I had kept my silk hood, but now I wore a floor-length, brocaded tunic, my legs supple and lithe in lavender stockings and black leather boots, the heels just tall enough to be elegant, yet not so extravagant as to hamper my mobility. Over my left thumb curled a spike made from shining silver, and in its tip was the drop of acida notte I would use to mark my target.
“Exquisite,” the Marchese said, circling me. “Absolutely exquisite.”
He extended a hand.
I took it, locking my eyes on his.
I saw him in his eyes. He looked just as my first lover had looked, the one who used me and left me all those years ago: beautiful beyond words, something in his physicality that made me feel safe, even as his eyes were alive with lust and his mouth twisted into a half-smirk. These kinds of men knew their beauty and wielded it for a weapon. I pitied the Marchesa. I felt his breath on my cheek – and in that moment of distraction I pressed the tip of my thumb spike into the back of his hand, wasp-quick. My fingers fumbled, the skin slick with sweat, and he noticed.
He made an exclamation of surprise and withdrew.
“I do apologize, my lord, I do apologize…” I crooned, stretching out the sounds of my words in obeisance, bowing and pressing my golden hair to his hand so that he would not see the flush of my face. He forgave me laughingly, as I had known he would. Not that it mattered. He clasped my hands and pulled me close.
“What is your name, my beauty?”
He cocked his head, the expression making him look like a boy.
“Such an old-fashioned name for one so young! Where did you…”
Then he realized. He looked at the scarlet bead of blood on the back of his hand and looked back to me, and knew in that moment exactly who and what I was.
He kept his poise. I will say that. But his flesh lightened, the movements of his fingers controlled and taut.
“Dance with me,” he said suddenly.
I could not refuse before the crowd waiting below.
Licking the blood from his skin, he pulled me into him with fierce force, feeling the vial – and every dagger, every weapon, every brute instrument of death – tucked into the folds and hidden pockets of the fabric. I did not care. I smirked into his face, wanting to see the fear in his face, to drink it in. I wanted him to know what I was about to do to him. This was a revenge for me as well as the Marchesa. For the youth I had been at seventeen. For the things that had been taken from me and the ugliness that had been left in their place. I had figured out the world in all these years I had stolen. I understood the lie of love.
We descended the stairs, arm in arm, to enthusiastic applause. The musicians saw us come together and struck up a steady waltz. The crowd parted, and faint, tipsy laughter followed us. Federico led me out onto the floor.
His face so close was truly breathtaking. There was no accusation in his eyes, only sadness. He murmured against my ear.
“I deserve this, I suppose. I have wasted years of her life. I owe her some of mine.” He turned me sharply and for a moment I almost lost my balance. But he maneuvered our bodies, parallel, into a diagonal, and I am old, and I knew the steps. We dipped and rose in promenade. The music swelled. We slowed at the foot of the grand stairwell amid uncertain applause from the nobles, and he turned me once more.
I could not resist. My taunt hissed, intimate, into his ear.
“I am what happens when you drink people like the wine you piss out when the night is done.”
“I accept it,” he whispered back. “I accept it.”
“You cannot accept it, because you do not know. But you will. You will.”
A sob broke my words; I was surprised by tears. No. I would not give him this. How many times had I cried because of men like him? No more, now. No more. I pushed it all down, pushed everything down. I needed to get away from him.
The music yet soared. He moved me in a circle, lowering me so that my hood almost brushed the floor – and then whipped me back to him as the dance ended. The crowd applauded. Our chests rose and fell, our hearts inches apart.
“All I wanted was love,” he said sadly. “Promise me one thing. The years you take from me… spend them well.”
The word was a lie I had heard from the lips of countless men before, yet from the Marchese it was almost blasphemy. A man who lived the lie he did – choosing a woman and then exercising every whim of his true nature in private, with men as young as I had been – had no business talking of love.
How had the Marchesa described them? His ‘boys?’ Creatures innocent of their beauty; perhaps the boys enjoyed it, flaunted it as I had when I was truly, naturally young, as if that flaunting and the pleasure they promised would prevent them from being doomed to lovelessness. They would be consumed like sugared confections. It was only a matter of time before their novelty would wear off, and they would be rendered unlovely in the eyes of the world. As I had been consumed. Now I was the sickness that followed the consuming; the knife in the guts that twisted and twisted until the body bent double, trying to crush it out.
Finally free from Federico’s terrible embrace, I hurried upstairs and found the space that had been arranged for me by the Marchesa: her private wardrobe. I locked the doors and lay down on the floor among the dresses. With shaking hands I slid the vial of acida notte from my breast pocket. My weapons weighed uncomfortably on my body, but they would not for long – because in a moment there would be no body at all.
Looking up at a constellation of gold stars picked out in the turquoise of the Marchesa’s dressing room ceiling, I uncorked the bottle and, drinking deep, opened the abyss and beckoned to my demons from the threshold. The soul was stubborn in the body and had to be shaken out by the horrors of the past: horrors that the philter unleashed from their marble prisons in the mind. One horror was most potent of all: the final ingredient of acida notte, unique to each one of us who does this work. Our wounds. Our special hatreds, a specific suffering as unique to us as the chemicals of our blood.
I drank, and the horror came.
The safety in the way that he said he accepted everything I was, and would protect me, and would stay with me
Let me in, one night after weeks of shy circling like skylarks, let me in, purring words in my ears wetted with saliva, just let me
And I did
I couldn’t not
Who would not
And it was wonderful
And I forgot the crying of my mother and the livid words of my father, the way he turned his back when he felt anything strongly, as if we could not feel the emotion reverberating from him like a drumbeat
And I forgot the strange looks and cruel names which are just words, just words, and the walls I built around my heart and around myself and the strength of my muscles and the swiftness of my limbs – and the pride that I could outrun any threat, that I could escape from anything if I had to –
And then the meeting him
And the hope
The hope most of all
And the realization that my feet were hurting, and my body was tired. And that I could stop running.
I know now that you never stop running. You run and you run and you never stop for anyone. No matter how good it feels. No matter how safe it seems, and how tired you are.
You keep running. To the end of life itself.
If you watched me you would see my body convulse, my face suddenly not so youthful, the flesh pallid. You would see me jerk like a marionette in the sumptuous fabrics of my costume.
There would be a murmur of air – a flickering – before I disappeared entirely.
Then you would watch me fly.
The curtain of the corporeal world rose to reveal the grand stage beneath it all, folded into the fibers of everything: the temporal realm, the time woven into the spans of our lives. I have taken acida notte many times and the sensation is always breath-stealing. Arms flung wide, I soared over a city above a city, an endless metropolis that stretched to each of the compass points around me. A mansion for every life, and a million lives. Each one looked the same from the outside: a tapering cone like a termite’s nest, glittering crystalline. Yet inside… inside was were the monsters dwelled.
The Marchese had been marked with the philter I had scratched into him, and so I saw his temporal mansion glowing the green of acida notte, like a beacon against lurid sky. None of the others glowed; the few of us who could do this work moved far from each other, for we were lonely and uneasy companions.
Only I hunted this night.
I flew between spires, my body luminous with the white light that pulsed from them. I arced downward, slowly spiraling. Alighting gracefully – my limbs practiced, my body used to adapting to the giddying transition from the earthly to the temporal realms, I headed for the door. Every entrance was the same in this realm: an ivory arch, featureless.
Inside, the mansion was the treacherous quiet of revelry silenced moments before. Secrets – lies – shaped the Marchese’s life and lies, too, structured the crystal structure of his temporal mansion. Towering, golden doors, all shut, made a ring around a central rotunda. My feet passed silent over a floor mosaicked with the forms of pink-skinned youths, bathing and reclining in scenes of decadence rendered crude in stone.
This was his idea of love. Of intimacy. Flesh and flesh.
The place was silent. Pretending to be uninhabited. Light flickered dimly from candelabra that hung from the ceiling; the walls of the mansion glowed a faint green, bilious with acida notte.
A stairwell curved shell-like up one side of the room, disappearing into heights obscured by darkness. I ascended. On the second floor, the architecture of the mansion changed, breaking the laws of science that structured the physical realm. I found myself in a long, carpeted landing lit by flickering sconces set at equal distances. More doors stood on either side of the corridor, golden and sealed shut. Low moans – muffled cries of what could have been pleasure or pain – thickened the air. The floor felt full with the presences of others as yet unseen.
The doors were not sealed as carefully as the ones in the lower floor. The dross of the Marchese’s life could only be hidden so well – and nothing could be hidden from me here for long. I dropped into a crouch and withdrew two curved daggers from the lining of my cloak. If I were quick, I would cut the throats of any temporal beings that tried to stop me. Hugging the shadows of the wall, I padded to the first of the great doors. This one was open a crack; light flickered on the crimson carpet. I brought my eye to the gap and peered into the room.
I was met with a scene of such decadence, such ecstasy, that to witness it felt like a profound violation. Most of the forms in the room were hours – small man-sized creatures, human-appearing – and Federico’s were all male. I watched the straining forms of two, three, five individuals (their limbs curled into each other in ways that would not have been possible in the physical realm) upon a gigantic bed, sumptuous clothing making a crazed tapestry on the floor. Movement drew my eye higher; a cloud of seconds cheered and sang, buzzing against the domed ceiling of the room in a living canopy of gold. They appeared as naked, fairy-like creatures, vulgar-faced and delicate-winged. They, too, were male. Pop pop pop: the cries of their vanishing were met with the cries of desire from Federico’s hours as his lifespan shortened naturally. Second by second.
I moved away, sickened.
I needed to kill five years and leave as soon as I could. There was no enjoyment here; I had the claustrophobic sensation of being trapped in the consuming dark of a giant’s stomach. I felt soiled.
I hurried down the corridor. Nothing impeded my path. The temporal beings were preoccupied with their disgusting, endless revelry, or else were hiding. My destination was the upper floors: where the larger temporal beings dwelled.
I was hunting.
The doors stopped appearing, as did the wall sconces, and I found myself walking in near darkness. A few steps more and the darkness grew complete.
I stopped, looking around me, every sense focused. One had to expect anything in this realm. The darkness seemed to grey some distance before me, and slightly higher. The architecture of this place revealed the Marchese’s character: pomp and glory shown to the world on the entrance floor, and the sordid, hidden things kept locked away up high, but always there, madmen in the attic of a palazzo, clamoring and hollering in their abjection. The Marchese was a thing that pretended it was beautiful and that would not harm, would not kill. I moved slowly forward, quieting my breath until it was a low, warm hiss that only I could hear. My blood ran hot and fast in my veins. I felt control.
My foot found the edge of a step and I ascended, arms stretched out for balance. As I moved higher, the light grew grayer and I began to pick out forms around me: wide steps of marble, the walls so distant I could not even see them. The space was vast. My blood quickened, my breath rasping now. There was a nakedness – a vulnerability – I felt here, and I cursed the Marchese all over again. The space around me changed. I felt watched.
This was the feeling of brazen, eye-wide scrutiny that a beautiful person walking into a room feels.
This was desire that wasn’t even deigned to be disguised: an I want as transient, as shallow, as the hot jet of climax.
This was a stripping of their personhood, humanity, intelligence, mind, soul, to the shape of their lips and the colors of the eyes and the forms of their hanging limbs and the curves and creases of their sex that was forgotten the instant pleasure had been gained.
This very place was like a shrine to him, my first. My wound. It was a sanctuary for the sinful, and a torment for the wounded.
I was exposed. I was unsafe. For all my weapons, my body, my ability – I was vulnerable. I hated the Marchese even more for making me feel like this.
Abruptly, the stairs stopped. I stood on a blinding white plain of marble before a cathedralesque doorway of carved wood. As I peered at the curved forms of its surface, it creaked open, the sound painful and harsh, amplified by space.
“Come,” a voice rumbled. “Come.”
My gloves gripped the daggers tighter, and I stepped through the door. The light was stark here; starlight glittered through green-glass walls. A faint vein of incense wound through the air. I could not see the ceiling.
Five beds had been arranged in the center of a ballroom a hundredfold as vast and opulent as the real-world ballroom of the Palazzo di Lasciare. White, clean sheets had been folded carefully upon them; white, bone-like spires of wood reared from the four corners of each bed.
Upon each bed lay a year.
Like all of the Marchese’s temporal beings, these too, appeared as male. Eyes closed, pale-skinned, they stretched out twice the height of a normal man. They looked serene, dressed identically in white gowns that perversely resembled the garb of the padres that swung censers in the ceremonies of our religion.
The voice spoke again, sonorous, and I almost leapt into the air. My eyes had been so focused on the beds that I had not noticed that around the room stood dozens more years: tall, gowned like the ones lying prostrate – and very much alive. One stepped forward.
“The assassin Scarmiglione. We have been expecting you.”
The year who spoke was a giant version of the real-world Federico. Physicality was exaggerated here: his eyes were too green, the curves of muscles beneath his robes unreal in their proportion. He, too, was a lie. The other years looked much the same – such was the Marchese’s narcissism! – but this one was evidently the spokesperson for whatever this was meant to be. “Five years, as promised,” he boomed, gesturing to the beds. “Fulfill your mission, cavaliere.”
I looked from him to the beds. The years there had not moved. Their throats, thick with the apple of the male sex, lay upturned, almost porcelain in the light.
This was too easy.
“They will not resist,” the standing year spoke again. “You will not be attacked. This is no trick. You are safe.”
I looked from them, to him, to the years around the room. I counted them: twenty-five. The Marchese did not have a naturally long lifespan – but, more importantly, there were not so many that I would be overwhelmed.
No. They did not deserve this peace. He would not control me like this. I would kill the years I chose; it made no difference, but I would be the one to do the choosing. I would be in control; I would not give the Marchese the satisfaction of doing this on his terms.
I raced to the nearest standing year, the marble floor seeming an impossibly vast distance. None of them moved. They looked down on me with something like pity – and the pity kindled my rage.
You use me
You use men like me
And then you look upon us with the fawning eyes of pity as if all of this were our weakness, our fault –
I leapt into the air, the daggers cutting an arc above my head, and buried the blades in the midriff of the year. As my body was pulled back to the ground, I opened a trail in him, tearing the fabric and expanse of his skin alike. There was no blood, no viscera. There was a faint sound of something like pain – and then the creature was gone. I hit the ground, panting, spinning on my feet and tensing in anticipation of retaliation.
Yet the remaining years stood in that infuriating calm, their backs still to the wall. A year pushed himself upright from one of the beds, stretching, and paced over to join his brethren.
“As you wish,” said the Federico-year, gazing at me sadly. “That is the first year.”
I thrust my daggers back into their sheaths – my hands shaking, so that it took several attempts – and I drew a cudgel from my belt and sprinted over to one of the years still lying on the beds. The years flinched, looking to one another in unease. This would be no easy death. This was battering, pulping death. I would show them all the ways that a person could be maimed. Drawing tall, enjoying the feeling of my body over the form of the other – I glared at each and every one of the standing years as I raised the cudgel. My gaze locked onto the Federico-year – and I did not look away as I beat out the head of the year on the bed below me. A sigh, a movement of air, a murmuration of fabric, and he, too, was gone.
“Very good,” murmured the Federico-year. His expression had hardened, and I felt a delicious satisfaction.
The crystalline walls of the temporal mansion flickered. My vision lightened and I swayed on my feet. The acida notte was wearing off; I did not have much time left.
I replaced the cudgel. From a pocket in my tunic I withdrew a bomb. Fury winged me: I was anger-bright, the muscles of my body never feeling so strong, and taken by a frenzy to see all the ways I could make the years suffer.
I heard the collective gasp of the years watching me. They seemed to shrink together: skeletal, serpentine giants whose white flesh and white clothing pushed into one another to make a formless mass. A living barrier that reared suddenly, threatening. Danger, exposed, electrified the room. The Federico-year raised his arm.
“It is not precise. You will kill too many of us. Please stop…”
I activated the explosive mechanism of the sphere, winding the gears in an order that only I knew. The metal clucked in my hands, the machinery whirring. The remaining years on the three beds sat up.
I had never spoken to any of the denizens of the temporal mansions in all the years I had been doing this work. To do so was a swift flight to insanity. But I spoke now.
“For all the men and women whose time you wasted. For all the people you hurt… for me… for me…”
I could not finish. My hands shook.
The beds below me seemed to hold the form of my innocence, the one taken from me. My wound.
Keep me with you forever.
I had been careful; I had been good at my work. But I could not be here.
It felt good to relinquish control. I was tired. I was tired of it all, and wanted the fire. I would destroy it all.
As one, the years around the room rushed towards me. All calm had gone from their faces. Open murder was there instead. Countless fingers made claws upon outstretched arms, the fabric of their gowns billowing around them like wings. A ragged white whirlwind of monstrous birds alighted around me, the years on the bed falling over each other as they, too, lunged at me.
I dropped the bomb and raced backwards, my boots almost slipping on the treacherous floor. I almost reached the door – and then the whole world caught fire. There was a detonation behind me that scorched the fabric from my back and hurled me forward. A cacophony of screams – low, high, animal, masculine – deafened my ears. Wood and stone and skin splintered, making diamond dust in the unreality of the mansion. The walls broke.
I pushed myself to my feet, turning to witness the terrible howling of the scorched years on the beds as they boiled in a storm of wood and charred ribbons of fabric; the furnishings caught like dry grass. I had made a conflagration. The impact of the explosions hurled the Marchese-year against one of his companions; licks and sparks of fire took them, too, and the fire whirled triumphant.
How easy it is to ruin something beautiful.
The stairs that had led the way to here, this topmost floor, cracked, crumbling beneath me. I fell – was pulled -through the air. My physical body called and ached for me with the force of a whole world. I turned onto my back as air roared around me and I saw a final scene that was luminous in its horror: the giant years in pieces, dismembered, blackening in flames which licked and leapt from one to the other, drinking hair and skin as greedily as the lust that had driven the living man. Years severed clean in half yet still mewling and wriggling as they clung to life. The Marchese-year howling, aflame, clutching at the blasted head of another year, skin crusting like ash, a lifespan reduced to black powder. Thunder beat the air behind me. Smoke and noise. Fire and fury. A ruinous path, as my own life had been ruined. My wound.
Bringing arms up to my face, crossing them for protection, I smashed through the crystal stairs and down into the dreaming night, falling beneath stars.
I closed my eyes as the ground flickered, dimmed. My form shimmered into existence: clench-fisted and on my back in the green of the Marchesa’s chambers.
No more evening scent of time-bound night.
No more profumi of women and men beautiful in their finitude, their countenances lighting with the possibility of whatever their futures held. No fabrics fluted with gold. No future at all.
Screams upon my waking. Screams, and the acrid memory of smoke filling my head.
My eyes opened to the turquoise skyscape of the Marchesa’s dressing room ceiling. I pushed myself up to a sitting position, jerking with sudden strength. I had gained years of youth, and my limbs shook uncontrollably. I screamed as my bones thickened and shortened in my skin. My limbs looked plumper, and as I ran my palms over my face, I felt smooth flesh free from hair.
The screams were distant; there was a commotion coming from the ballroom. As I hurried from the chamber and into the darkened corridor, I felt a crackling pain in my bones; with horror, I felt myself growing smaller, my limbs unsteadying.
I was growing younger, still.
The fire I had set in the Marchesa’s timeline was not going out. It was killing more of his years, minutes, seconds as I ran – and I was being drained of years in tandem.
Cold terror filled my veins like a drug. I could not run from this. I only carried the one, spent vial of acida notte, and I could not travel back into the temporal realm to assist the Marchese’s years in dousing the flames until I synthesized more.
“It is worth it,” I heard myself growling. “If I am to die, it is worth it.”
My clothes slid from me as I pressed on through the palazzo, heading to the light and sound of the ballroom below. I almost tripped over my cloak as it tangled about my legs. I was now the size of small child. Ten of the Marchese’s years, at least, had been killed. And counting. I descended steps to the half-landing and peered between the marble bars, no longer tall enough to clear the balustrade.
The noblemen and women surged around the prostate form of the Marchese, Federico, convulsing in the middle of the rotunda. Men’s and women’s voices rose in confusion and terror. The Marchesa stood over her husband with an expression of madness and horror combined. There was no triumph in her face. I watched with keen eyes as Federico’s skin folded into itself, the hair thinning and lightening as the years accelerated upon his body.
“Burn,” I hissed, drunk with hate, hating him even more for making me feel hate at all. I had wanted to be happy in this life. “Burn for the gods. Burn.” My pantaloons slipped down my waist and brushed my hips. I yanked at them, wriggling my arms through bagging sleeves.
The process was slowing. The Marchese was unconscious now, the body easing into old age. His clothes billowed around him as the form shrank, the muscles thinning to hew closer to his bones.
If the Marchese had been around forty years before I murdered his years, now… now he must have been near sixty. A decade and more gone in heartbeats.
And I… I was now a small child.
The crowd inched forward – and that was when the Marchesa looked up.
The impulse to live sparked in me, surprising as a lover’s first kiss. I ran.
I heard her voice ringing out around the ballroom – “Catch the child! Il ragazzino, il ragazzino – catch him!” But the crowd surrounded her, servants rushing to attend the fallen Marchese di Lasciare, and I was down the stairs and through the throng of silks and sighs that were the men and women I could never touch, and never be. Ridiculous in robes made for a nobleman, crying tears in my wake, I ran out into the night.
The lights of the palace glared behind me, threatening at every moment to expose my unnatural form. I threw myself down alleyways, changing directions like a hare pursued. I headed for water.
My body was small now, a child’s, and the clothes reared over me. I slipped out of them as if they had never belonged to me. Holding them to my chest and wrapping my jeweled cloak around me, I stumbled through the streets. A young urchin who made his home in the city’s refuse traded me a set of children’s garments, and some rations, for my own; his eyes glittered rapt in the dark starlight of the diamonds of my cloak. He could sell it all and eat for months, perhaps years. I withdrew a sheet of paper and a pen from its lining and, with shaking hands, scrawled a note. There was so much to say. So much I could say. Of the pain I had caused, the agony, all of it…
I wept. I wept for myself. I wept for the Marchese and Marchesa and all those others whose lives I had shortened. And here was I, a man of sixty years (or more) in the body of a boy, with the years before me. Or perhaps not. Perhaps there would be a respite; perhaps there would be a mercy. Perhaps she – the Marchesa – would give it to me. Hers was a keen mind, and she had proved herself a natural alchemist. She would find me and punish me for my wrongs, wretched as I was.
I listed the ingredients of the acida notte – cruel, horrid things, an insult to the gods! – and finished my note with these words:
Remember the anger you feel this night. Hold your hate for me close. It will give you strength, and the quenching of it, when you find me, will be exquisite. This work is hard but it helps us to survive the pain. It is for those broken hearts, the ones who have drunk deep from bitterness and seek a salve in the ruination of others: a stealing back of what has been stolen from us. I know I deserve to be punished – I know that – but knowing the secrets of acida notte, you can now take your revenge on others in my stead. Redirect that anger. Keep it close. I am sorry. I am sorry for everything.
I cursed the words; they could never convey the perverse glee at the thought that I was not alone in my suffering: that she, too, had been wounded now, and had been given the tools to undo that wounding. I gloried in her future revenge and at the same time hoped that it would never find me. The thought of punishment, of repentance, thrilled my heart – but death was unimaginable.
“Child, this cloak can be yours if you do one thing more for me. Can you deliver this note to the Palazzo di Lasciare without reading it?” I spoke to him through the tears. The boy nodded, barely able to look at me for the jewels. “Good.” I folded the parchment and slipped it into his hand. “Hold it tight. Run straight to the palace, right now, and give it to the Marchesa.”
I swung the cloak around his shoulders and he gasped in delight.
And then he was gone, and so was I, two runners streaking away into the night: one to the sea, and the other to the ruination I had left behind.
Years idled by. I lived them quietly, smuggling myself onto a ship headed for a distant shore, in a country not my own. I grew into my manhood yet again. The prickling of hairs on my body, the lengthening of my limbs drew fresh curses from my already cursed life. I was the pain and the parody of a man, perhaps seventy, perhaps eighty years old, looking no more than thirty. Perhaps a little older, perhaps younger… I had stopped being able to tell. It did not matter. None of it mattered, this time. No matter how many years I drained from others I grew into the same, hateful image: the same elongated face, the same grey eyes. The same lithe figure. How I was sick of it.
I took a lover, as I always took lovers, because I am weak and never learn. One man looked older than I, around fifty years old, and kind. We sailed on fragrant oceans and flew the night skies in dirigibili, eating the finest food and drinking the headiest wines. I, smiling and laughing and taking all of it, savoring all of it, because I knew that he too would leave me soon. I was sure of it.
I killed time less now, becoming more selective in my contracts, taking just enough to reverse the aging of my appearance when the first grey hairs streaked my temples and the skin around my eyes began to crease when I was happy. But it felt good, this starting over. And, after years of fear and doubt that most deadly of things – happiness – crept in.
I didn’t want to believe she would find me; I had been distraught, reckless even, sending her the ingredients of the philter as I had done that night. Yet I had wounded her, made a murderess of her and scarred her with the guilt of what she, though unwitting, had brought about. Guilt did not rationalize, nor discriminate, though. I knew that too well. She would be scarred – and that scar, I hoped, would give her strength. Just not yet, not soon. The more years I enjoyed with my lover, the more I wanted. I was far from her. I heard nothing. I thought I had escaped. Stupidly, impossibly, I did the one thing I should not have done: I stopped running.
We were on a ship sailing the coast. It was summer, and the sun was bright, the wine cool and flowing. Youths played us music as nobles took their leisure and, yes, I was dressed in finery and felt, finally, that I belonged among them. I was happy.
My lover had gone to repose on the decks below, and I had kissed him and smiled before he left, promising to join him shortly. I would take in more of the sea air. Face-first to the sun, eyes closed – I smelled something rich: a new intoxication on the sea air. I turned and saw her standing behind me.
I did not recognize her at first. She looked older, a decade at least. She was dressed simply, her hair greying and unkempt.
Our eyes met.
Of course. Of course. This is only fair. I have had my cup of joy in this life; the rest is misery, and what I deserve.
She said nothing as she withdrew a vial from her breast. It was of clear green glass, and I did not have to ask what it contained. Acida notte.
I could have lunged forward, snatched it from her. But I was old. I was tired.
“You have come,” I heard myself say. “Your profumo is exquisite.”
“I know. I made it.” She replied. Then, after heartbeats passed: “He died on the floor of the ballroom that night.” Her face did not change its expression but I sensed the difficulty in her saying those words. “He didn’t struggle. I don’t know what you did but… you took too many years. It was too fast.”
“It was an accident,” I whispered.
“I did not ask for that. I am not to blame for that.” She seemed not to have heard me. I saw that expression again: the turning-inward. The dialogue with herself. The conflict, and the reconciliation.
I said nothing. I waited for what was to come. I would give her everything she wanted: the perfect revenge. “Are you happy?” She asked me finally.
“I have known happiness.”
She pulled the cork from the potion.
“Not here,” I said hurriedly. “You will fall into a stupor. Find yourself somewhere secure…”
But she was not listening. Stepping forward, her gown brushing against me, she leaned over the railing and drained the plague-green liquid into the ocean.
“I waited for a long time to find you,” she said. “I hated you so much. So much hate that I did not even think possible… it was frightening. I imagined everything I would do. How much I would take from you. I hated you so fiercely – and you made me hate myself more for what I had brought about. But I forgave myself.” She was weeping now, the sunlight making her tears golden streams on her cheeks. “And do you know something else?”
I shook my head. She looked into my face. The intimacy in her closeness was almost unbearable. “I forgave him, and… I forgive you too.”
Something broke inside my chest. She saw it happen and said it again: “I forgive you.”
“You can’t!” I cried; I could not tolerate this, somehow this was worse, somehow –
“I forgive you.” She said it again. “Gods! How many of us would be left alive if we were all to take revenge on the ones who hurt us? How many lifelines would be cut short? Do you think you are the only one whose heart hurts? Who has been wounded?” Her hands folded across her throat, alighting like birds.
“I do not deserve this… I do not…”
“I know. And yet you have it.”
She did not hold me. I did not deserve that much mercy, and she would not disrespect herself. But she was there to witness the rocking of my body on that crystal sea, and the wind taking my cries, and the bucking and buckling of the inner structures that had kept my suffering contained: suffering that was everything and nothing at all. She was there to see the end of it. I opened my mouth to thank her again, and again –
“Enough.” She raised a gloved hand. “It is done. Let us both live whatever futures we have left.”
I looked at her, as if for the first time. The longer I looked the greater the mystery of her life became: a person more than her vengeance, more than her suffering. Where had she been born? How did you spend her time? What meant most to her in other people?
I hadn’t realized how beautiful and complex people were before, for all that I had roamed their temporal realms. The clothes they put upon their bodies, how they held themselves. How they sustained their bodies – their real bodies – with food and art and the million miracles of the natural world. The sky. The earth beneath. The winds that brought them their breaths, the air moving within and around them. Everything outside, here, in the physical world. Where I was supposed to be. Beholding everything real. Acida notte opened a doorway that should never have been opened. I beheld her and realized that I had not been seeing the world, truly, since the day I had been wounded. He had turned me away from the world. Now, at last, I wanted to return to it.
She did not smile at me. She did something more: she beheld me, in this moment. As I was. More than I was. My chest rose with gratitude that I could never hope to voice, but wanted to voice anyway…
She raised a hand, stopping me again. Not unkindly.
“No more, ragazzino. I have heard enough of your life. Go and live it.”