A string buzzed against his fingernail; the finger itself slipped, and the beat was lost. Damiano muttered something that was a bit profane.
"The problem isn't in your hand at all. It's here," said Damiano's teacher, and he laid his ivory hand on the young man's right shoulder. Damiano turned his head in surprise, his coarse black ringlets trailing over the fair skin of that hand. He shifted within his winter robe, which was colored like a tarnished brass coin and heavy as coins. The color suited Damiano, whose complexion was rather more warm than fair.
"My shoulder is tight?" Damiano asked, knowing the answer already. He sighed and let his arm relax. His fingers slid limply across the yew-wood face of the liuto that lay propped on his right thigh. The sleeve of the robe, much longer than his arm and banded in scarlet, toppled over his wrist. He flipped the cloth up with a practiced, unconscious movement that also managed to toss his tangle of hair back from his face. Damiano's hand, arm, and shoulder were slim and loosely jointed, as was the rest of him.
"Again?" he continued. "I thought I had overcome that tightness months ago." His eyes and eyelashes were as soft and black as the woolen mourning cloth that half the women of the town wore, and his eyes grew even blacker in his discouragement. He sighed once more.
Raphael's grip on the youth tightened. He shook him gently, laughing, and drew Damiano against him. "You did. And you will overcome it again and again. As many times as it crops up. As long as you play the instrument. As long as you wear flesh."
Damiano glanced up. "As long as I ... Well, in that case may I fight my problem a good hundred years! Is that why you never make mistakes, Seraph? No flesh?" His toothy smile apologized for the witticism even as he spoke it. Without waiting for an answer, he dropped his eyes to the liuto and began to play, first the treble line of the dance, then the bass line, then both together.
Raphael listened, his eyes quiet, blue as lapis. His hand still lay on Damiano's shoulder, encouraging him. Raphael's great glistening wings twitched slightly with the beat of the music. They caught the cloudy daylight and sent pearly glints against the tiles of the wall.
Damiano played again, this time with authority, and smoothly passed the place where he had to change the meter--two strokes, very fast, plucked by the middle finger. When he was done, he looked up, his face flushed with success, his lower lip red because he'd been biting down on it.
Raphael smiled. His wings gathered forward and in, making a sort of private chamber within the drafty Delstrego hall. "I liked that," the angel said. "--The way you played it, too, first each line, then both."
Damiano shrugged and flicked his sleeves from his hands, his hair from his face. Though his expression remained cool through this praise, he squirmed on the bench like a child. "Oh, that was just to warm up to it. I wouldn't perform it that way."
"It's too simple. There's nothing to it, just playing the one line, without even any trills or ornament."
The archangel Raphael took the little wooden instrument out of Damiano's hands. He edged away along the bench, and his wings swept back in a businesslike manner. His face, as he retuned the strings, was chiseled perfectly, almost harsh in its perfection, unapproachable, forbidding. But the high B string rang flat (the pin tended to slip), and his left eyebrow shot up in theatrical shock, along with his left wing. Damiano smothered a laugh. Slowly Raphael began to play the melody "Ce fut en mai," which is a very simple tune, one he had helped Damiano to learn three years previously. He played it a number of times through, without trills, without ornamentation, without counterpoint of any kind. He did, however, play it differently. The first iteration was jolly; the second, sad. On the third trip through, the song bounced as though it were riding a horse, and the fourth time the same horse was being ridden into battle. The fifth became a dirge, and when it all seemed over for good (like an eventful life--that song--now over for good), he played it through again like the dance it was. Damiano listened, his amusement turning to awe.
"I'll keep my mouth shut from now on," muttered the youth.
"I would be sorry if you did that, my friend," said the angel. "I like to hear you talk." The smile he turned on Damiano was terrifying in its mildness, but Damiano was used to Raphael's smile. He grinned back.
"Please, Seraph, while you have the lute, play me again the French piece from last week. I can't grasp the cross-rhythms."
Raphael lifted his golden gull-wing brow again, but as no musician needs to be asked twice, he began to play.
Damiano watched and listened, thinking: I am privileged like no other man on earth. I can never deserve this, not though I transmute lead to gold and flesh to fire, not though I keep my chastity for life.
It then occurred to him that perhaps not every young man in the Piedmont would consider it a reward worth remaining a virgin for--hearing an angel of God play the lute of four courses. Even Damiano himself had his moments of dissatisfaction (with virginity, that is, not with Raphael).
And then angels were not a popular object of study, even among the order of alchemists, since they had no material power to offer and were more apt to tell the truth than tell the future. Even Damiano's father, who had been a witch of great repute, had never tried to summon an angel. Other sorts of spirits he had contacted, admittedly, but of that Delstrego had repented.
At least Damiano hoped his father had repented. It was quite possibly so, since Guillermo Delstrego was a good while dying.
While Raphael played the pastorelle, Damiano attempted to follow him, knowing the music. But soon the angel burst the confines of the French piece, as his student had known he would, and drifted away into melodies and rhythms suggested or invented on the spot. Raphael had a trick of running his lines together until, like the triune Godhead, they were united into a single being. Then, when Damiano had almost forgotten what he was listening for, the different lines sprang apart again. There were four, no five of them. Six?
Soon Damiano was utterly lost, as the angel struck the strings all together in what should have been a dissonant crash but was not. Raphael brushed the strings lightly, as though with his wings, and his left hand fluttered over the smooth black wood of the lute's neck. The sound was no longer music at all--unless water was music or the scraping of wind over the grass.
Damiano heard silence and noticed Raphael's eyes on him. The angel's face was perfect as silver, as a statue, and his gaze was mother-shrewd. He waited for Damiano to speak.
"Am I ever going to play like that?" the young man mumbled, nudged out of a waking dream.
White wings rustled on the floor. Raphael seemed surprised by the question. "You will play like--like Damiano, as you do already. No one can do elsewise."
"That's all? As I do already?" His disappointment dissolved in the intensity of the midnight gaze.
"More and more, your playing will become Damiano. As your life takes its form, so will your music."
Damiano pursed his bee-stung lips. His eyes, avoiding Raphael's, slid around the great hall with its cream-colored walls, floor of painted flowers, and assorted alchemy bric-a-brac scattered on the acid-stained oak tables. He focused on the black kettle hanging over the central hearth.
"Damiano jerks and stutters. He has the smooth articulation of a sore-footed cow. And as for his life--well his life is to take lessons: in magic, in music. He has done that for twenty-one years."
Raphael didn't smile. "You are very hard on yourself. Remember that the harshest critic on earth is my brother, and his specialty is telling lies. Personally I like Damiano's playing." He extended the liuto. Damiano took it and fondled it absently. He always felt uneasy when Raphael began to talk about his brother the Prince of Darkness.
"If you continue to study," added the angel, "I expect you will develop the ears to hear yourself as I do."
"I knew there was some reason I was studying," he muttered. "So it's just so I can hear myself without wincing?"
His grumble died away, and Damiano lifted his eyes to the echo of siege engines, distant and ghostly, resounding in the hall. The iron lids of the many pots on the hearth rattled in reply.
The angel didn't seem to hear. "I thought that was done with," muttered Damiano, furrowing his forehead. Rough brows met in a straight line. "Last Tuesday the men of Savoy crept out of Partestrada, between midnight and matins. The citizens they abandoned are in no position to fight."
Raphael seemed to contemplate the bare hall. "It's not really ... battle that you hear, Dami. Pardo's rams are knocking down walls outside of town."
"Walls? Whose? Why?" Damiano shot to his feet and wedged his shoulders into the narrow crack of a window. A man of more substance would not have been able to do it. The wall was almost two feet thick, for the Delstrego house had been built as a fortress.
Damiano craned his head left and peered along the main street of Partestrada. From this particular window, if he twisted with a good will, he was able to spy around one corner to the front of Carla Denezzi's house, where in good weather she sat on the balcony, doing her complicated needlework. Damiano was practiced at making this particular neck twist. What it told him often decided whether he'd bide his time at home or venture out.
Today the balcony was empty; and its wooden shutters, drawn. The street below, too, was empty, totally empty. Not a man or a woman, not an ox wagon or a wandering ass to be seen. The town didn't even smell right, he thought as he inhaled deeply through his nose. It didn't stink of urine, peppers, pigs, sheep, men's or horses' sweat--none of the comfortable smells that meant home to him. The streets smelled burnt, like the air surrounding a forge. He lifted his eyes to the distant fields and forests beyond the town wall, which faded from brown to gray to blue in the November air. Damiano squinted--his far vision was not the best. Out of habit he reached back along the wall, his hand scrambling over the slick tiles till he grasped his staff.
It was not the traditional witch's stick, not being brown, branchy, or picturesquely gnarled. Damiano's staff was ebony and lathe-straight, ringed in three places with silver. Knobbing the top was a silver crest set with five topazes and a rather small ruby (red and gold being the Destrego colors). It had been given to Damiano by his father when the boy was twelve--he then stood only as high as the second silver band. Now, nine years later, the staff was still a bit taller than he was, for Damiano had not grown to Delstrego's expectation.
The staff was as important to Damiano as crutches were to a lame man, though young Damiano had two limber and useful legs. It was his spelling-instrument, and upon its black length he worked with more facility than he did on the lute. Also, although he had never worked a spell toward the purpose, Damiano believed he could see better holding the staff. He held it now.
"The wall belongs to a man named Francesco Alusto," answered the angel, his quiet voice cutting easily through the stone wall to Damiano's ears. Damiano weaseled back into the room, his cheeks flushed, his eyes bright with worry.
"Alusto? He owns the vineyards, such as they are. But why? What will they do when they get in? Isn't it enough that they control the town?"
There was an indefinable reproach in the angel's eyes. "Why? Because Alusto became a wealthy man under Savoy patronage. Although his being a wealthy man might be enough. What will they do? Damiano! They will rape and kill, take what they can carry or haul, and then march away. Perhaps they will burn the place as they go.
"But I am not here to instruct you in the customs of war--that would be a bad education, I think, and more easily gotten elsewhere." He spoke without heat, yet Damiano dropped his eyes to the pattern of the floor. Against his better judgment, almost against his will he found himself saying, "Don't you care, Seraph? Don't you hear the cries of men dying? The weeping? It rang in my ears all of last week when they fought beside the city wall. The good God knows that since the Plague there are few enough men left in all the world."
The angel's expression might have been called ironical, if irony were a thing that could be built on a foundation of pity. "I know you hear them, Dami. I almost wish you did not, for when the ears are open, the rest of the soul must follow, to its own pain. But I hear men suffering. I too. The difference between us is that you hear them when they cry out, whereas I hear them always."
Damiano's startled glance flew upward to his teacher's face. He saw the pity, not directed only toward suffering humanity but also toward Damiano himself. He stood confused, not knowing why Raphael should waste his pity on Damiano the alchemist, who was young and wealthy, and in good spirits besides.
"What would you have me do?" the angel continued. His wing feathers gathered up like those of a bird in the cold. "I can't change the heart of man or the history he's making for himself. I am not"--and here he spread his hands out before him and his wings out behind him in a sweeping gesture that took in the entire arc of the compass--"in truth a part of this world. I have no calling here."
Damiano swallowed hard. "Except that I called you, Raphael. Don't--give me up. Please. If I speak offensively in your ears, remember I'm only a mortal man. Tell me my fault. I would take a vow of silence rather than have my words offend you." He reached out and slapped the angel's knee, awkwardly and with rather too much emphasis.
"A vow of silence? That's a rigorous promise, Dami, and there are few people I have met less suited to it." Raphael leaned forward, and yellow hair fell gently curling around his face. "I will not give you up, my friend. Compared to mankind, I am very patient. I have the time, you see. And I am not as easily offended as you might think. But you must not ask me for answers that are not revealed to men." The golden eyebrow rose further, and one wing scraped the flat ceiling "--It may be that they are not revealed to me, either."
The wing descended, obscuring the window light like a filter of snow. "Besides, Damiano, the important questions involve not the intent of God toward us but the soul's own duty, and you know that clearly, don't you?"
Damiano did not know it--not on certain issues, anyway. Behind Damiano's teeth, white and only slightly uneven, trembled the question that had waited in silence for three years, ripening--the terrible question about the necessity of virginity. Surely now was the time to broach it. Raphael had practically asked for such a question--it was not something unrevealed to men, after all, but only knotty. Such an opportunity would not knock again.
He heard a scrabble and panting on the stairs, and his dog tore into the hall, calling, "Master, Master, there's a soldier at the door. With a spear!"
She was a small dog, knee-high, very heavy in the head and shoulders, and bandy-legged. Ugly. Her color was white, except for a saddle mark over her shoulders, and so she was called Macchiata, which is to say, Spot.
"With a spear?" echoed Damiano, feeling the moment for his question dart off like some animal that, once frightened, will forever be harder to approach. He stood, indecisive, between the angel and Macchiata.
"Pax tecum" whispered Raphael. His wings rose and glittered, and he was gone.
Macchiata blinked at the disturbance in the air. She shifted from leg to crooked leg, and her ruddy hackles stood out like the quills of a hedgehog. "Did I scare him away, Master? I'm sorry. I wouldn't scare Raphael on purpose.
"--But there's a soldier..."
"With a spear," added Damiano disconsolately, and he slouched down the stairs after Macchiata.