Authors’ Note: The Chris who you’ll see in this is the same Chris from the pages of Always Darkest. Once known as Cartaphilus, cursed with immortality for striking Jesus, Chris has roamed the earth for a long time. You can read about how he came to be on that path in Volume I of The Twelve Days of Fic-mas. The story that follows has been in our personal canon for Chris for a long time. What follows is less a Christmas story, and more a story that takes place at Christmas. Still, we think it has a place at Fic-mas. And we hope you enjoy.
A Work of Art Dies Not
Chris woke up feeling refreshed despite the various indulgences last night offered. The wine flowed freely, and the food, the food was superb. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten so decadently. Though not a scrap of meat could be found on the table, or in the house, Chris thought he’d never had a lovelier meal. Nor could he place the last time he’d drank his fill of such exceptionally fine wine absent concern or constraint. Neither could he remember the last time he’d been in a place where the fulfillment of any desire had been so freely available.
He had to stretch his memory back to Saturnalia celebrations during his youth in Rome, hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of years ago, to find a comparison for the holiday he’d been a guest at last night. Well, for the last several days. His host didn’t believe in limiting celebrations to one day if there was good food, and wine, and company.
Chris rolled over and the aftereffects of the drink made themselves known. He’d need a hearty breakfast and probably a long steam in the baths before he really felt like himself. Nearly every muscle was sore, too. After dinner, the celebration turned more … athletic. The bath sounded better and better.
He was lucky to be in a home with such luxurious accommodations. Few places he’d been bothered with bathing at all, say nothing about a room for heat, and one for cold, and another for a vigorous massage before. His mind strayed again to his boyhood. If he hadn’t been so reminded of the Roman he once was, perhaps he would not have dived so fully into the festivities. But dive he had. With reckless abandon.
As sleep was swept more surely from his mind, Chris began to feel the twinges of guilt. The time of year wasn’t about feasting, or anything else he’d spent the night doing. It was about celebrating the birth of the Savior.
His guilt quickly faded in a heady haze of memories of last night. Regardless of what the current establishment was imposing on the faithful, Chris was there for the beginnings of the faith and knew it to be one of rejoicing rather than mourning, of embracing the gifts the world had to offer rather than thinking only of Paradise to come.
It was strange, but meetings in catacombs with other believers from all walks of life from nobles to prostitutes, full of singing and breaking bread together, was somehow more in keeping with what Chris saw as what the Lord intended than the rather joyless obligatory gatherings he’d witnessed more recently.
Of course, Chris had to admit, since his last run in with the Church a couple decades ago, over a book of all things, he hadn’t set foot in a church. His heart ached for the fellowship, but he didn’t feel he could trust the wealthy nepotistic organization that claimed to be acting for Christ these days. The last few weeks here harkened back to the early days of song, and celebration, and love.
Rising slowly so as not to disturb his host, Chris made his way to the baths to take care of his morning ablutions and perhaps heat some of the stiffness from his bones.
As soon as he stepped out of the bedroom he was startled by a servant. “Good morning, sir. Do you require any assistance this morning?”
Chris stopped, his face flushed. He stammered a quick no thank you and made his way down the hall. Damnit. He’d forgotten about the servants. A momentary fear gripped his heart. The servants here seemed very loyal. He certainly hoped they were discrete. He assumed they must be.
His host had assured him that many “good friends” had come and gone from this place, but no word of it was ever heard outside these walls. There’s been a bit of unpleasantness with the law over a model back during the apprenticeship days, but none since. That experience had made his host much more circumspect about private dealings.
Still, as Chris made his way to the baths, he worried. No one could find out about how he had spent his time here in Florence, especially not last night. It would be scandalous. Potentially fatal, even. Well, not so much fatal for him, but still no good could come of it. Frankly, he wasn’t sure he could trust the Church here in Italy to be of any help. And the Templars had to be very careful these days.
Chris felt his anger grow, railing against the small minded nature of the times. Of course when something of great power and influence like the Church falls into the hands of small minded people out to employ their families and line their pockets, no good could come of that either. He should be able to keep company with whomever he so chose, and not have to worry about the opinions of others.
Europe at the moment was too much like being back in his father’s house for comfort. Chris continued to fume through his bath, but found his mood lifting as the hot water soothed his muscles. He knew where he stood with his faith, and with the Lord, and no amount of legalism or interference from the powerful would change that.
On his way back to the bedroom, he stopped to admire the various paintings and sketches that adorned the walls. He breathed deep. He rather loved the smells of the paintings, and especially of the oils to both cover the canvas and clean up the brushes. He was appreciating those when another deep breath drew him along the hall. A haunting aroma filled the hallway. He decided his host could wait. He needed to find the source of that smell.
Chris followed his nose to the kitchen, where a small staff was hard at work.
“Good morning sir, can we help you?”
“Yes, what is it I’m smelling?”
“Well, we have bread in the oven.”
“No, not that something … I’ve never smelled anything like it.”
The young man smiled. “We are making coffee.”
“Coffee?” Chris had heard of it, when he’d been doing missionary work in Istanbul, but never had the opportunity to try it. He hadn’t thought it would have made its way here. “I didn’t know one could get it here.”
“The master of the house has many friends, sir. One of them is a merchant. He travels to the East often. He’s very quiet about this discovery just now. Things from that land are seen as suspect by the Church you see.”
“I have felt the suspicion of the Church myself. Simply for reading. So I understand.” The open questioning of conventional wisdom relaxed Chris even more than his long bath had managed.
“You won’t find it anywhere else in these parts, sir.”
“Well, regardless of what anyone thinks of its origins, it smells divine.”
“Yes, sir, it certainly does. Would you like a cup?”
“Yes please.” Chris was never one to pass up a new experience.
“How would you like it, sir?”
“Um, well how does one normally have it?”
“I usually prepare it with honey, sir.”
“If you had anything to do with the meal last night, I feel I could trust you with my very life, and will most certainly trust you with me first coffee.”
A bright smile flashed. “Very good, sir.”
That was something else about these place. The servants behaved like family. They were attentive, good at their work, but there was no obsequiousness, and certainly no fear.
Chris found the beverage to be to his liking, both sweet and bitter at the same time. Chris stood near the hearth and enjoyed the warmth, slowly sipping the hot liquid.
“Oh, there you are, Christoforo,” came the pleasantly husky voice of his host from behind him. He liked the sound of the name he’d chosen as his traveling identify this time. He found of all the names he’d wandered by, it was the one he liked best to return to. He especially liked it as it was spoken here.
“Good morning, Leo. I trust you slept well,” Chris said, turning.
“I should think so. I am not as young as I once was, certainly not as young as you are, my good friend. You are a man of singular skill and energy.”
Chris blushed and shot a look towards the kitchen servants.
Leonardo laughed, a deep rich laugh. “Don’t think twice about them, Chris.”
The older man patted him affectionately on the shoulder. “I’ve told you, these are my people. They are nothing if not discrete.”
He was unaccustomed to such openness and the fearful fluttering in his chest from earlier returned. “I hope your trust is not misplaced.”
“Come now, Christoforo you are not the first man, or woman for that matter, to share my bed. And you won’t be the last.”
“I will trust in your good judgement then.”
“And well you should.” Leonardo chuckled. A servant handed Leonardo a steaming cup. “Thank you, Giuseppe.”
Chris took another sip of the wonderous beverage and Leonardo smiled. “I’m afraid that will be hard to come by unless you go wandering as guard for missionaries for the Church again.”
Chris shook his head. “It is unlikely that I will find myself in the Church’s employ any time soon. So I will be sure to savor it while I’m here.”
A lovely servant girl came to take Chris’s empty cup and he found it impossible not to smile at her.
“Think you’re likely to have trouble finding work with them, a man of your varied tastes, do you?” Leonardo’s eyebrows raised in amusement.
He cleared his throat. “Not for that reason, no. As you are, my friend, I am a man of discretion. I find I’m capable of carrying many secrets.”
“I sense that is true. They do show on your face from time to time.”
“I imagine they do. Sometimes secrets do become heavy.”
Leonardo frowned at the thoughtful expression on his young friend’s face. “Now, Christoforo, before you become too serious, there is something I’d like to show you.”
“Really?” Chris beamed.
He was envisioning a sneak peak at some new invention. He and Leonardo had known each other for several years, and in all that time he’d never gotten a look behind the curtain. Perhaps now that they were “good friends” as Leo liked to put it, he would finally be taken to the brilliant man’s workshop.
“One of the traveling machines we’ve talked about? I confess I keep hoping you’ll take those more seriously. A man tires of going everywhere by horse.”
“I’m afraid not,” Leonardo chuckled. “But nevertheless, this, I think you will like.”
Chris followed Leonardo down a long hallway that ended with a heavy door. Leonardo produced a key and opened the door.
“This is my workshop. I must ask you not to talk about what you see.”
“You have my word.”
The room was filled with all kinds of apparatus and easels. Windows set high in the wall cast a dim light from the wan December sun. The fireplace sat cold, leaving the room with a sharp chill.
“Can I trouble you light some candles while I kindle a fire?”
Chris set to work moving from sconce to sconce, while Leonardo built a fire. When the room was brighter and starting to warm, Leonardo motioned Chris to a medium sized easel covered by a cloth in the corner.
“Now Christoforo, you remember the sketches you helped me with?”
“Yes. For a medical text if memory serves.”
“Those are the ones.” He grinned, and despite his greying hair, the mischievous smile and twinkling eyes made the man look young. “I confess, you are such a handsome fellow, I used them as a subject for a painting.”
“You painted my portrait?” Chris asked, flattered by the idea, but strangely apprehensive, too. Portraits had a way of following a man, especially one painted by an artist as illustrious as Leonardo. In a hundred years or so, a resemblance to a painting might prove annoying.
“Well, yes and no.” Leonardo recalled Christoforo’s apprehension at posing for the sketches at all. It’s what had given him the idea for his little experiment to begin with. “I remembered that you didn’t want a picture of yourself, so much. So I only used the sketches for inspiration. You gave me an idea to challenge myself.”
“Was making me presentable a terrible challenge?” Chris asked with a chuckle, wondering what Leo could have done to those sketches that represented a challenge.
“You know full well that there is nothing challenging about your appearance,” he laughed. “But enough talking.”
Leonardo removed the cover from the easel revealing a complex portrait on wood underneath.
“You look confused.” Leonardo chuckled.
“Well, it’s just, That’s a woman. I know you have broad tastes, Leo, but I should probably tell you that no matter how you imagine her, my sister passed away years ago. And we looked nothing alike.”
“Not your sister, not even any other woman. I wondered how you would look if you were a woman, Christoforo. I wondered what your reaction to it would be, too, I must confess.”
Chris took a moment, taking in the picture. “Well, I am flattered. Though I don’t think I make a very pretty woman.”
“It’s not anyone’s job to be pretty, man or woman. We are who we are. That is part of why I paint. One need not be pretty to be beautiful. You see?”
Chris nodded, still staring at the picture. “It’s really quite good.”
“I’m glad you like it. I may play with it a bit more. Now that you mention a sister, I wonder if I could make your features more distinctly feminine. I’m in no rush to call it done.”
“Well, my sister had brown eyes and hair to match,” Chris said encouraging an alternative interpretation of those basic sketches now that they’d made their way onto canvas. Chris decided he’d feel more comfortable with this picture looking a little less like him, as a woman or not.
“I’m not going to change everything, Christoforo. I rather like your expression. It speaks of those secrets we’ve discussed.”
“Alright, but Leonardo…?”
“Of all the expressions I … that is she … That is me … What’s with the smirk?”