Arthur's earliest memories were not particularly interesting ones. He was only a baby when the monks found him, wrapped in blankets in a woven basket on the steps of the Abbazia di Chiaravalle della Colomba. His first memories were little more than flashes of the monastery's high walls, the shady grove of bitter orange trees in the garden, squat and twisted enough for a child to climb in, and the mingled smells of old paper, fresh ink, and sour milk.
The abbazia was not an orphanage, which made his arrival unprecedented and somewhat peculiar, and the monks that lived there were not in the habit of raising small boys. They were mostly men, many years Arthur's senior, who had come to the monastery to remove themselves from the outside world, to dedicate themselves to quiet contemplation and the sombre service of God. Many had no patience for a little boy, prone to getting under foot, and those that did were more interested in taming, rather than indulging, him.
From the monks, Arthur had learned to read and write and learned the basics of astronomy and philosophy. By the time ten years had passed at the monastery and was old enough to work without complaint, he was put to work accompanying the older monks to the small nearby town of Borgo San Donnino where they would sell cheeses and wine in the square.
The servants of the local nobility and wealthy merchants would come to buy their goods or sometimes just to pinch Arthur's cheeks.
"Such a serious child," they'd say as Arthur frowned back as politely as he could. "This is what comes from raising a boy around old men. So quiet."
"You wouldn't say that if you saw him before breakfast," laughed Brother Domenico who was bald and near-sighted and always claimed to have a sore back so that Arthur would have to unload the cart on his own.
Sometimes one of the women would offer to take Arthur into her master's care, finding him a place in the kitchen or in the stables, somewhere where he could be around people his own age. The monks would always look to Arthur who would shake his head, solemnly and silently.
It was a foolish dream to cling to but from as early as he could remember to the age of seventeen, he always believed that someday his own parents would come for him. There had been a ring in the basket with him when the monks found him. Silver, with an engraving of a nightingale in mid-flight. Arthur wore it around his neck as he grew and always thought, Why leave the ring if they never meant to claim me?
But eventually he grew tired of waiting and more certain in the knowledge that the monastery would be his home until he died. He put the ring away in a box under the bed in his small room in the frater and told himself that he had put the dream away with it.
That was the year the violin-maker came to Borgo San Donnino.
The day itself was warm and thick, as though a storm was on its way. It made unloading the cart a longer process than usual and left Arthur sore and sweating by the time he was done. There was little shade in the market square, the only real stretch of any substance cast by the Palazzo Communale and even that would be gone as the sun moved overhead at midday. Reluctantly, Arthur thought that he might be able to cool off if he sat down in the shadow of the cart. If their mule wasn't feeling inclined to kick, at least.
But he'd come with Brother Gianni today, and Brother Gianni was more understanding, even on his worst days, than Brother Domenico, so when Arthur had unloaded the last jug of wine, Gianni patted him on the shoulder and said, "I can look after things from here, Arthur. Rest, explore. I'll need you in good shape to get us home again."
"Are you certain?" Arthur asked and when Gianni shooed him with both hands in response, he decided that only a fool would ask twice. Arthur was generally of the opinion that he was not a fool.
It was not the first time Arthur had been left to his own devices while one of the monks handled their wares. But often, even when given free time, there was little to do with it. Borgo San Donnino was little more than a village and other than holy days or festivals, the market was mostly populated by farmers selling onions and potatoes and maize. There was a blacksmith as well and a gold merchant who made his home in the neighbourhood behind the cathedral. The air smelt like horse manure and old hay, and the few young men and women of Arthur's age were always working and had little time to talk even if Arthur was inclined to approach them, or knew how to start.
Sometimes, though, a wandering merchant would pass through town, and that always stirred some excitement. The town lay on the Pilgrim's road to Rome, and many travellers passed through it, but few, especially those carrying wares to sell, ever bothered to stop, eyes almost always fixed on their final destination.
As he wandered away from Gianni and the cart, hoping to prevent stiff legs tonight by stretching them now, Arthur could tell immediately that today was an exception.
A crowd had formed at the far end of the square, standing in a semi-circle near the steps of the cathedral, and music was floating over their heads. Rich and high, quavering and sweet. Arthur found himself drifting toward it before he'd even made the conscious decision to do so.
At the centre of the crowd stood the violin-maker. He was tall and neatly, if plainly, dressed with close-cropped black hair. His appearance barely registered with Arthur, however, because the violin tucked under his chin was the most beautiful thing Arthur had ever seen. It was deep red, and the wood glinted in the sun as the violin-maker swayed. The man's hands were hardly rough, but the violin still looked delicate resting in them. It was only when the song ended that Arthur realized he had been staring and had barely breathed the entire time.
"I have just come from France," the man said over the smattering of applause that ran through the crowd as he finished, "where the king himself purchased one of my violins to be played in his court. There are no other instruments in the world like them. The wood is aged through a secret process taught only to those from my home in the East."
As if to demonstrate, the violin-maker set his bow to the instrument's strings again and pulled it slowly across, releasing a single, pure, melancholy note into the air. A shiver ran down Arthur's spine. When the bow lifted again, the note died, and the violin-maker smiled a thin, sharp smile.
"As you will see, my friends," he said, "the musician brings much but even in the hands of a neophyte, my violins make sounds of unparalleled beauty." He loosened his grasp on the bow until it dropped to hang between his thumb and index finger. "May I have a volunteer?"
It was not like Arthur to volunteer for anything. Even in the monastery, he kept to himself, doing what was asked of him and then removing himself to read or to sit in the gardens. But now, even without thinking hard, Arthur knew that he couldn't let the chance to touch the violin pass by. His hand shot into the air to join the few others already waving about.
The violin-maker scanned the crowd and when his eyes landed on Arthur, they stopped, and Arthur forgot to breathe again. The violin-maker pointed and then crooked his finger in a beckoning motion. Arthur stepped forward into the semi-circle.
"Have you ever played before?" the violin-maker asked.
"Once or twice," Arthur replied. The monks had taught him to read music and to sing albeit poorly, and he had played a few songs on the old, flat violin left from the days when the monastery boasted a tiny orchestra. Once a year, when the maestro from the cathedral travelled to the monastery to play for Christmas mass, he'd teach Arthur to play more complicated songs on the harpsichord. He always said Arthur had a talent for memorization, for rhythm.
The violin-maker smiled his quick smile again and held out the instrument. As Arthur took it gently, he said, "Then you will be able to tell all of our friends whether I exaggerate about the quality."
The violin felt light in his hands, almost weightless, but there was something strong there too, something in the neck that told Arthur it would not break in his hands. Forcing his fingers steady, Arthur raised it to his shoulder. He pictured the songs he'd learned last winter, and a sonata jumped into his mind so clearly he could almost see the notes on his eyelids when he closed his eyes. He fixed it there and slowly began to play.
It was nothing like playing the old violin. These strings didn't threaten to break under his fingers. The pitch didn't threaten to jump sharp and squeak at every octave change or dip flat on a held note. The violin never for a moment fought him. It just sang.
Playing the entire song seemed to take forever and yet no time at all. Through it, Arthur kept his eyes shut, and it was like nothing mattered but the music rising past his fingertips and into the air. When he came to a slow, regretful end, the world rushed back in bit by bit: the smell of manure, the sound of farmers hocking wares to the passing shoppers, the dense mundanity that Arthur'd never realized he'd felt every day of his life until he'd played that first note.
There was no applause, and Arthur felt a first frisson of embarrassment as he opened his eyes, wondering if he'd been terrible without realizing it. They were staring, the whole half-moon crowd. Glancing over his shoulder, Arthur saw that the violin-maker was staring as well, something pointed and thoughtful in his eyes.
Arthur held out the instrument, arms stiff, elbows locked. "It's very good," he said awkwardly.
"Yes," said the violin-maker, slow and musing. "It is, isn't it?"
"Yes!" said someone in the crowd and then a few others took it up:
"What a beautiful sound!"
"We must speak of the price," said the gold merchant, stepping forward from where he'd been lurking at the edge of the crowd. "My son is showing a talent for music, and he needs a fine instrument to play."
The violin-maker turned away from Arthur – drawn, apparently, by the irresistible call of a paying customer – and the twist of his body concealed the violin from view. Arthur blinked. His fingers still felt like they were humming. Clenching them into fists to stop the feeling, he turned and began to walk away too. He didn't want to leave the violin behind, but he would have to, he knew, sooner or later. Better to do it now.
He glanced back once, though, as he slipped away into the crowd that was now either breaking up or drifting closer to haggle. The violin-maker caught his eyes over the head of the woman standing next to him, and Arthur looked away because the last thing he needed in his life was more foolish dreams.
The sun had set by the time Arthur and Brother Gianni returned to the monastery, and the anticipated storm clouds were starting to gather overhead. Gianni spent most of the trip back talking about the day's sales, which had been surprisingly plentiful, and how he hoped that the money would be enough to hire someone to patch the roof in the east wing before winter.
When Gianni asked about his day, though, Arthur had only stared steadfastly at his knees and said, "Nothing out of the ordinary." And then refused to look up, despite Gianni's concerned expression hovering in the corner of his eye.
Arthur ate with the novices, as he did most nights, in silence only broken when someone needed something passed down the long table. He attended evening prayer but barely heard the words and when he fell into bed that night, he could almost swear that he still heard the music in his head, each note running up his arm like it was sinking into his skin, becoming part of him. It took a long time for sleep to find him.
The next morning began like every morning in Arthur's memory. He went to morning mass and broke his fast on brown bread and salt and the rinds of cheese that no one ever bought at market. He spent hours sweeping and washing and replacing candles in the dorter and the nave. It wasn't until much later, when he'd stepped out into the yard to brush away the dirt and leaves washed in by the night's storm, that he realized he'd been just on the verge of humming all morning. There was music in his head still, and it didn't take much thinking to figure out how it had got there.
He considered going back inside to find the old violin and play for a while, but it wouldn't be the same, and – childishly, he knew – he didn't want to do it if it wasn't going to feel the same. For all that Arthur had known something was missing all his life – parents, a home – he'd never felt dissatisfied with his life before. Now, quite suddenly, he did, and it was frustrating.
He picked up his broom and took it out on the ground instead.
The yard was surrounded on all sides by walls, to encourage solitude and the contemplation of God rather than the outside world, but there was a large open arch on the east wall which faced toward the main road and the entrance to the monastery. When the manor-farmers brought food up, they'd often come straight through the arch and cut across the yard to the kitchens, rather than going the long way in through the front door.
It was through the arch that Arthur saw the man coming up the road, little more than a dark outline on horseback against the sky. He watched the figure stop and dismount at the entrance, saw two brothers emerge from inside to greet their visitor. Then, after a short, inaudible discussion, all three disappeared inside, and Arthur went back to frowning at the grass.
But it wasn't long after that that Novice Nash stuck his head out of the frater and said, "There you are" in Arthur's general direction.
"What?" asked Arthur, snappish because he was distracted and could never find the patience to be polite to novices. He'd seen too many come and eat and laze around and then leave before taking their vows to be particularly nice to them.
Nash narrowed his eyes but only said, "The abbot wants to see you."
Arthur thought about asking why, but the drawback to being consistently impolite to the novices was that now most of them didn't like him very much. Considering Nash's glare, he wasn't likely to be helpful, so Arthur tucked his broom away in the corner by the kitchen and followed Nash into the frater, out through the covered alley around the cloister's inner square, to the door to the chapter house, where Nash deposited him and then walked away with little more than a grunt.
He was not surprised to find the abbot inside. He was mildly more surprised to find Brother Gianni sitting on one of the long wooden benches tucked against either side of the room. But he was, above all, genuinely surprised to see the violin-maker standing just to the left of the abbot, hands folded neatly behind his back. His surprise was great enough that for a few moments Arthur just stood in the open door and stared.
"Come in and close the door," instructed the abbot. After another second of hesitation, Arthur did so.
"You wanted to see me, father?" he asked, keeping his voice as neutral as possible. He avoided looking at the violin-maker directly, which was difficult when the man was staring at him with obvious amusement.
The abbot beckoned him closer with one hand and said, "You are seventeen now, aren't you?" At Arthur's nod, he paused and looked thoughtfully up at the ceiling. "Practically a man, then. And you've been with us long enough that if you applied to begin your novitiate now, you would certainly be accepted. In another year, you could take your vows and join us officially."
He paused and squinted at Arthur. The light in the chapter house wasn't very good, and the abbot was old. Arthur could have moved forward and let him see his face more clearly, but wariness kept him where he was standing.
"Master Saito tells me you played one of his violins yesterday," the abbot continued. "He says you have talent for it."
The violin-maker, Saito, cleared his throat. "Not extraordinary, perhaps," he said, "but good."
Arthur, unsure whether to be insulted or complimented, pressed his lips together silently. This seemed to amuse Saito too.
"When I am not travelling," he said, "I have a shop in Venice. Have you heard of the Ospedale della Carità?"
"No," said Arthur.
Saito lifted one shoulder in a shrug, as if unconcerned and unsurprised by this answer. "It is an orphanage, though you will find more bastards there than orphans, I think. But it has become passingly famous for taking its charges and turning them into musicians." Saito fixed him with a considering look, like he was waiting for the answer to an unasked question.
Arthur wasn't stupid. He'd been sheltered in the monastery, he knew that, but the monks who had taught him to read and do sums had always said that he was quick. He didn't need to be lead to a solution in order to reach it, and he saw now where Saito was leading. His throat felt dry suddenly, but he tried not to be obvious when he swallowed. He had the vague sense from nowhere in particular that if he showed that he wanted this too much, it would be snatched away again.
The abbot took over, pinching his eyebrows at Arthur in concern. "Master Saito has offered to take you with him when he leaves for Venice and to find you a place at the Carità. If you'd like."
"It wouldn't have to be forever," said Brother Gianni, speaking up for the first time. Arthur looked over at him, and Gianni gave an encouraging smile. "The abbey won't go anywhere while you're gone. If they won't take you or if you don't like it, you can always return and begin your novitiate."
But I saw you after you played, and I don't think you will, his eyes seemed to add.
Arthur looked to the abbot and then at Saito who was smiling a restrained, barely-visible smile, as if he also judged Arthur's answer to be a foregone conclusion. The small part of Arthur that revelled in being perverse wanted strongly to say no, just to teach Saito's smile not to presume.
But the rest of him wanted to say yes, and it was the rest of him that won.
"I'll go," he said.
Even as the words came out of his mouth, Arthur thought that it seemed a strangely easy way to change his life, like it should've taken something more than two words to accomplish it. Or two words and a song, Arthur supposed. But there was Saito, smiling smugly but openly now, and Brother Gianni, getting to his feet, murmuring about finding Arthur clothes to travel in. There was the abbot, clasping his hand on Arthur's shoulder and reminding him that God would be with him wherever he went.
So in the end, it was exactly that easy.
It took three days to reach Venice. Saito travelled with a small caravan: his apprentice, a driver for the cart, a boy for the horses, and the three horses themselves – two to pull the cart and one that Saito preferred to ride alongside. Arthur sat in the back of the cart most of the way, feet dangling over the road, watching the grass and farmer's fields and hilly vineyards pass by on either side.
Long years of practice could not be broken in only a few days, even if those days were strange and entirely different from every day Arthur had lived before, and so Arthur kept to himself mostly. His travelling companions were largely unbothered by this. The stableboy seemed to have decided that he was terrifying and avoided him. Saito and his apprentice, Tadashi, spoke to each other from time to time but only ever in a language Arthur didn't know. Their driver spoke to the horses and, from what Arthur could tell, no one else.
So Arthur was left to his thoughts, which split in even thirds between dissecting the wisdom of his decision, wondering how life at the monastery would proceed without him, and trying to picture what his new life would be like. The Carità in his imagination was a lot like a small monastery, filled with serious, studious musicians who were quite a bit like the monks he had known all his life, only younger. It struck him, on the second afternoon as they were passing south of Verona, that this was probably a failure of imagination on his part, and he asked Saito about it that night when they made camp.
"Are you asking me to generalize?" Saito asked as Arthur unloaded the bedrolls and the pot their driver would use to make a stew for dinner. Arthur had the sense again that Saito was either laughing at him, judging him or both.
"I suppose," he said.
Saito tilted his face up and considered the sky, as if it were standing in place of the Carità's students.
"They take after their concert master," Saito concluded after a long pause.
Arthur, having not thought to wonder about what his teachers would be like, was almost intrigued enough by this to not be too annoyed by how Saito had failed to answer his question. Almost.
"And what's he like?"
Saito thought again for a moment. Then: "Loud," he said. "Silly. And thus regrettably brilliant."
This occupied Arthur's thoughts for the rest of the trip, replacing even the vague yearning he felt every time he looked into the back of Saito's cart and caught sight of a violin case. No matter what he tried, he could not find a way to make loud, silly, and brilliant coalesce into a reasonable picture of a person, let alone into a person who would actually be able to teach him music. It was only on the third day, while he frowned at his knees and turned the thought over and over in his mind, that he started to regret his decision.
They reached Venice late that evening. Arthur had looked at maps before they left but, having never travelled farther than Borgo San Donnino, he had no sense of scale or time and was surprised when the sun sank deeper and deeper along the horizon without Saito calling to break camp. He had no idea how close they were until Saito reined his horse back and fell into step with the back of the wagon.
"Come up to the front," he instructed. "I imagine you will want to see this."
Arthur crawled up through the back of the cart, careful not to step on or rattle any of Saito's instrument cases. He settled himself on the seat beside the driver and was about to call out to Saito and ask what he was supposed to be looking for when they crested the hill, and Venice was below them.
It was by far the biggest city Arthur had laid eyes on, and the knowledge that there wasn't much for it to compete with on that score didn't lessen the impact. The road they were on ran toward a canal and from there, a dock waited with boats to take them over the water and into the mess of buildings and church spires and fluttering flags that jutted out against the horizon like a crown on the water.
"Venice," grunted their driver.
"I can see that," said Arthur, without any sharpness at all.
By the time they were driving through the city's streets, Arthur's words seemed to leave him entirely. Lamps were lit along the canal, little spots of orange and yellow, and boats were anchored everywhere, bobbing in the night breeze. A few people rode horses over the bridges. Shadows moved at the end of an alley to their right. Somewhere, bells chimed, calling parishioners to evening mass. It took a while before Arthur decided that it wasn't that his words had left him. Borgo Son Donnino and the monastery had been his entire life, and they couldn't compare; he simply didn't know the words for this.
Saito led them down one street and then another. They crossed bridges and manoeuvred through narrow avenues until they emerged into an open area, where two canals intersected. A tall square building sat in front of them, dark and silent and imposing, blocking out most of the buildings beyond it. Saito pulled his horse to a halt and gestured to it.
"Your new home," he said and dismounted, handing off his reins to their driver.
Arthur found his bag in the back of the cart and then climbed down, following Saito on foot across the bridge. They did not head to the front door, as Arthur expected, but instead walked around to a small side door, set back farther from the waterfront. The building's walls were dotted with dark windows but as Arthur looked up, he saw light flare briefly from one before it too grew dark again.
Saito knocked. It wasn't long before the door cracked open, and the face of a man, illuminated by candlelight, appeared in the crack.
"Master Saito," said the man, sounding surprised and suspicious at once. "It's late."
"I brought you something, Master Yusuf," said Saito, ushering Arthur forward with a sweep of his hand.
Arthur stepped forward, and the man named Yusuf opened the door further, raising his candle so that the light fell across Arthur's face as well.
"He's old," said Yusuf after a moment of studying Arthur's face without, Arthur felt, actually acknowledging his presence.
Saito made a noise of mild offence. "Would I waste your time with someone too old to be taught?"
Yusuf made a face of reluctant acquiescence and shrugged his shoulders. His eyes fell back on Arthur and took him in this time more as a person than as an object to be studied.
"What do you play?" Yusuf asked, efficient but not brusque the way Saito tended to be.
Arthur opened his mouth and then, realizing that Nothing wasn't a very good answer, shut it again. He frowned and then went with the answer that felt right, even if it wasn't precisely true: "Violin."
"Another one," Yusuf sighed, and Saito's mouth twitched in the suggestion of a smile. "Well, come on then." With one hand, Yusuf pushed the door open wider and waved Arthur in with the hand holding the candle, making wax splatter on the cobblestones.
Arthur glanced back at Saito, and the violin-maker inclined his head.
"Arthur," he said.
Briefly, Arthur considered saying thank you, but everything that Arthur had learned about Saito in the last few days suggested that he was not the type to expect or even particularly want it. In the end, he only nodded his head in return and followed Yusuf inside.
The halls were dark and deserted. Their footsteps echoed loudly on the stones.
"This isn't to say we'll keep you," said Yusuf as they walked. "We'll have to see what you can do in the morning and then decide. Where are you from?"
"The Abbazia di Chiaravalle della Colomba. Near Borgo Son Donnino," Arthur said.
Yusuf hummed a disinterested acknowledgement. "If we don't take you," he said, "there are other orphanages that may. Or you're old enough that you could find work. Something will turn out, I'm sure."
They came to a flight of stairs, and Yusuf led him up and then down another dark hallway and through a set of doors.
"Are you the concert master?" Arthur asked suspiciously because Yusuf did not seem loud or silly, and his brilliance was unclear as well.
Yusuf tipped his head back and laughed a single, sharp hah!
"No," he said, "and thank God for His small mercies. I instruct the timpanis and the violinists, as our redoubtable concert master generally does not care to."
Arthur added lazy to the list of characteristics that seemed to describe his, hopefully, future teacher and frowned, wondering why anyone had ever given him this job in the first place.
Yusuf stopped in front of a door and opened it. The room beyond was small and bare, with only a bed covered in a plain, white sheet, a candle, unused, and a chest for clothes.
"You've missed dinner, I'm afraid," said Yusuf.
"I'm not hungry," lied Arthur.
Yusuf nodded, accepting this at face value. "Sleep," he said. "You'll play for Eames tomorrow."
He turned away, and Arthur stood still in the room until the glow of Yusuf's candle had disappeared entirely down the hall. He shut the door then and lay down on top of the sheets on the bed, not expecting to be able to sleep. As soon as he was lying down, though, the excitement and uncertainty of the day seeped out, and weariness slipped in instead.
Eames, Arthur thought and fell asleep.
He woke the next morning to the sound of loud voices in the hall. He'd never heard chatter like it before, young voices raised high, laughing. Disoriented, he rolled out of bed and only remembered where he was when he looked out the small window by his bed and saw the glinting canals below him.
His clothes were rumpled from being slept in and dusty from travel, and he knew that the other change of clothes Brother Gianni had provided wouldn't be in much better shape but in the chest, he found clean, plain clothes that were only slightly too big for him. He pulled these on and hazarded a first glance beyond his door.
The hall was not full of boys, but there were more in one place than Arthur had ever seen before. Some very young, some Arthur's age. They were sleep-tousled and bleary-eyed and talking over each other as they made their way down the hall.
"So I did hear someone come in last night," said a boy with dirty blonde hair, drawing to a stop in front of Arthur.
As he was unused to interacting with people his own age, it took Arthur a few moments to realize the words were was directed at him.
"Yes," he said, for lack of something better to say.
The boy didn't seem to mind, sticking out his hand for Arthur to shake. "I'm Dominick," he said.
"Arthur," said Arthur, taking his hand.
Dominick peered at him. In Arthur's short experience, this seemed to be a thing that all Venetians did, and he wondered if that was because so many strangers passed through the city every day or if it was just habit.
"You're fifteen?" Dominick asked.
"Seventeen," Arthur corrected.
Dominick smiled and nodded. This seemed to please him more than Arthur thought it should have. "You'll be with us, then."
"They haven't decided whether they'll keep me," Arthur pointed out, and it was only in saying it that he realized how much the thought of not being kept, once again, bothered him. Dominick didn't seem concerned.
"I have a good eye for talent," he said with a shrug that kept it from seeming too much like a boast. "Come with me. I'll show you around."
Lacking another option, Arthur followed Dominick and joined the crowd of boys making their way to the stairs. In the daylight, the orphanage seemed transformed from something silent and barren, like a grave, to something very much alive. Loud, Arthur thought, watching an older boy carry a younger boy down on his back, silly. The words didn't seem as bad as when Saito had said them.
Dominick pointed out various rooms as they went: laundries and lavatories and teachers' rooms. The east wing, he said, was for the boys, and the west for the girls, but they all ate and did their rehearsals together. Arthur was not alarmed, as a result, when the tide of boys met a tide of girls, and they all funnelled into a long room together to eat breakfast.
"Mallorie!" Dominick called as they entered, lifting his arm up and waving it until whomever he was calling to saw him and moved his way. It turned out to be a girl, pale and elegant, who smiled at Arthur just the same as she smiled at Dominick, like she was greeting an old friend.
"You've found someone new," she observed.
"He came in last night," said Dominick. "His name is Arthur."
"Mallorie del Flauto," she said, and Arthur was grateful when she didn't offer her hand as Dominick had. He wouldn't have known what to do with it.
Mallorie and Dominick sat together at the end of one of the long tables, and Arthur took a seat beside Dominick because it was better than braving absolute strangers.
"Del Flauto?" he asked.
"Since none of us have family names, they name us after our instruments," explained Dominick.
Mallorie smiled again. "It helps them keep track of us all, I think," she said. "So I am Del Flauto, and Dominick is Della Viola, and we are all a happy family, except when we want to strangle each other."
Arthur, who had never known another orphan before, found this a hard idea to wrap his mind around and sank into silence. Dominick and Mallorie left him in peace and chatted to each other instead about the day ahead and how practice had gone the day before and who was ready for the new concerto they'd been promised and who wasn't. Breakfast was porridge with milk and a little honey. Arthur didn't eat much and told himself that it was because the food was richer than what they served the novices at the monastery and not because of nerves.
The teachers all ate at one table at the far end of the hall, and Arthur glanced that way surreptitiously a few times during breakfast, trying to determine which one was Eames before he gave up and asked.
"Oh, none," said Mallorie. "He never comes to break fast."
"You'll see him in rehearsal," Dominick promised.
After breakfast, they all attended morning prayer in the attached chapel and then were given a short period of rest to bathe and gather their things before rehearsal. Arthur had nothing to collect, so he washed his face and waited for Dominick to come for him and show him to their rehearsal hall.
There were little more than a dozen of the older students in the hall itself. They were sitting, arranged by instrument in a semi-circle, and chatting, but the chatter softened as he and Dominick entered, and Arthur felt himself bristle under the attention.
"Sit with me," Dominick whispered, placing a hand on Arthur shoulder and steering him toward the violas. "You'll get your proper seat later."
So Arthur found himself sitting on the edge of the viola section as they began warming up. It was a mess of disparate noises at first: the trilling of flutes and the first piercing screeches of the oboe, a timpani roll behind them and a low rumble from the horns to the far right. Arthur watched the fingers of the violinist in front him as she went through a scale and tried to resist the urge to cover his ears because there were limits to even his own rudeness.
But slowly, bit by bit, the discord began to sort itself out, each instrument dropping into line, until they were all playing a single note together.
"It sounds as though you're ready for me," said a voice, and Arthur tore his eyes away from the violins to look at the doorway where a man now stood. He was not like any of Arthur's mental pictures, which had all run to the older, to the wild-haired, to the forgetful and doddering. The concert master was none of those things, in fact, and Arthur's nerves grabbed him all at once, making swallowing difficult.
Eames was greeted with smiles and a few calls of "Good morning, Maestro" as he made his way to the stand at the front of the room.
"Good morning, my very lazy students," he replied, standing with a slouched, languid posture and sweeping his eyes over the lot of them. "Trombones, you'll find you are a little sharp. Have we all been practicing the allegretto?"
There was a general groan. Arthur saw Dominick's whole face wrinkle in a pained expression.
Rather than growing annoyed at this response, Eames grinned. "That's what I thought," he said and then with the tiniest shift of his shoulders, the slowness was gone from the way he was standing. His posture was suddenly attentive. "But you're all in luck today, as we seem to have a new student in our midst."
Eames's eyes found Arthur, and a curious smile curled one corner of his mouth, unreadable. In response, Arthur felt his spine straighten, stiffen, and the urge to play well enough to wipe that smile away blossomed furiously in his chest.
"Arthur, isn't it?" said Eames. "Arthur del Violino."
"Yes," said Arthur, without any hesitation.
"Would you play for us, Arthur?" Eames asked, as though it was entirely Arthur's choice to make. As though his future at the Carità depended on it not at all.
"Yes," Arthur said again and got to his feet.
Eames took a violin case off one of the shelves and tested the strings before handing it to Arthur. Their fingertips touched for a moment as the instrument passed from Eames's hands to Arthur's, but Arthur barely noticed it over the feel of the violin in his hands.
"When you're ready," Eames said, soft enough that Arthur might have been the only one who heard, and then he stepped back.
Arthur gave himself a few moments to shut his eyes and pretend that he was the only one in the room. Then, before his boldness abandoned him, he touched the bow to the violin's strings and began to play. He'd learned the song two years ago. It made him think of the heavy rains in November, grey skies and thunder. His fingers weren't as steady as they could have been, but the notes swirled around like the winds that battered against doors and blew down branches.
He didn't even realize he was at the end until he hit the last note staccato, bow bouncing off, and he felt the heat in his cheeks. The room was silent, just like the crowd had been back in the market. Arthur opened his eyes and looked immediately for Eames.
He stood not far away, arms folded over his chest. His expression was mostly blank, which meant, Arthur noted with some pride, that the smile from before was nowhere to be seen. For a very long moment, Eames didn't move or say anything. Then, slowly, he unfolded his arms and leaned over to pick up the violin's case from the floor.
"Violins," he said carefully, never looking away, "make room for Arthur. Antonia, share your music for today, if you please." He held out the case and raised his eyebrows, like he expected Arthur to raise some sort of objection. Arthur, deciding to thwart expectations, took the case and then his seat in silence.
As Eames cleared his throat and began to guide the horns through another tuning note, Arthur felt a sharp poke at his shoulder blades.
"My eye for talent is never wrong," Dominick hissed, and Arthur, finally, let himself smile.
Settling in at the Carità should have been harder. The thought drifted through Arthur's brain on and off for the first few months, whenever he had a moment to relax and clear his head. These moments were rare, though, as not only did he have rehearsals and chores and practice to attend to, but Eames had asked him to sit in on some of Yusuf's classes with the younger violinists for rehearsals as well to learn all the things he'd missed by coming to the orphanage so late in life.
Arthur took to theory and technique like it was breathing. It appealed to him in the same way that the moment when tuning brought everyone together on a single note appealed. It made order out of disorder, and Arthur found himself content to play scales and arpeggios for hours on end just to think about the precision of his fingering and the differences between each note.
"You're unnatural," Dominick told him one afternoon after watching Arthur warm-up, with a look of protracted horror on his face.
"What Dominick means," said Mallorie, resting her flute in the divot just below her lower lip, "is that you're better than he is now."
Arthur smiled even though it wasn't true. Dominick played with an insight that Arthur could never hope to match, a fundamental awareness of how he fit into the orchestra as a whole and how he had to play to make everyone around him sound better. Mallorie, on the other hand, was a consummate soloist, able to coax both vulnerability and steel out of her flute as needed. Every week, she begged Eames to write her a duet to play with Dominick and most weeks, Eames laughed and promised it was coming.
The truth was that Arthur practiced for hours and hours just to feel like he was keeping pace with them. He sat in his window and practiced his fingerings silently long into the night after everyone else was asleep. There were many mornings when Mallorie had to nudge him in the ribs to wake him up during breakfast or when Dominick flicked him in the back of the neck as his thoughts wandered during rehearsal, but he steadily gained ground and even though he was never able to win that same startled look from Eames as he had on his first day, he never drew any particularly harsh critiques either.
"Pianissimo," Eames would remind him sometimes and others, he'd just nod his head to signal that Arthur had performed well enough. If Arthur could have been content with well enough, he might have let himself relax more, but he couldn't and so he didn't, and the days slipped by in quick succession.
As Venice eased into autumn, Arthur's beginner lessons came to an abrupt halt when he found Eames waiting for him in the hall one afternoon.
"Do you have a moment?" Eames asked, slouching and easy and lazy-looking as he often was between rehearsals or at the meals he bothered to show up for.
Over the months, Arthur had seen how this could melt away in an instant to reveal something else, something sharp, that let Eames tear apart a poorly-played stanza in a few words or heap praise with little more than a look, but Arthur still thought of him as lazy most of the time and remained on the fence about his supposed brilliance.
The answer to the question was obvious and clearly something Eames already knew, so Arthur chose to treat it as rhetorical and simply waited for Eames to continue. He didn't need to wait long.
"Good," said Eames, and he stepped forward to catch Arthur by the elbow and steer him back down the hall. "There's something I wanted to show you."
As concert master, Eames had his own set of rooms in the north wing, over the chapel. They were out of the way enough that neither student, nor any teacher really, had reason to pass them unless they were purposefully looking for Eames. Arthur had happened on them only once by accident, early on when he still got lost on occasion while moving between the different rehearsal halls.
He'd never been inside, however, and he stopped as Eames unlocked the outer door and didn't move again until Eames gave him a push on the shoulder to direct him inside. The first room was a clutter of pages and instruments and half-burned candles. Books were piled on the chairs and on the floor, and page after page of music was piled on the books. Arthur looked at it all and felt distinctly unsurprised.
Eames began sifting through the papers on his desk. "A commission for the French ambassador's birthday," he was explaining. "A concerto for violin and cello in D minor. There." Having found what he was looking for, he turned and held the papers up to Arthur. "Terrible drunkard that he is, I doubt he'll appreciate it, but I'd like to hear it out loud once before I send it off. For the sake of my reputation, if nothing else."
Arthur blinked. "What?" he asked.
"As good as I may be," Eames said with a patient smile, "I can't play two instruments at once. Sit."
Arthur looked about for the chair with the least collected detritus on it and sat. Eames retrieved a violin for Arthur and then his own cello and pulled up a chair just to Arthur's left. The music was stuck haphazardly on a stand between them. Through all of this, Arthur waited for some sort of hint that this was a test or a joke or anything other than what it seemed to be.
"You really want me to play with you," Arthur said in clear disbelief, when he couldn't contain it any longer.
Eames settled the body of his cello against his thigh and gave Arthur a strange look. "Sometimes," he said, "I can't tell if you're the most arrogant student I've ever had or whether you honestly have no idea how good you are."
Arthur felt himself warm with the compliment, possibly the most open and direct that he had ever received, but outwardly, he frowned in the hope that Eames wouldn't be able to tell.
"I have some idea," Arthur muttered, and Eames laughed.
"Good," he said firmly. "Every great musician must be, at least in part, a great egoist first. Why else would we ever think we're worth listening to?"
This seemed a thin theory to Arthur, but the glint in Eames's eye seemed to say that he knew that already, so Arthur ignored him and focused on the music instead. The first few measures were his alone and complicated – far more complicated than anything they played in rehearsal, abrupt rises and falls that happened nearly faster than his finger could manage. He had to furrow his eyebrows and concentrate as he played, to the point that he almost forgot that Eames was sitting beside him at all.
Just as Arthur was starting to feel comfortable with the tumbling scales of notes, Eames raised his bow and played the first deep cello note. And then another and another, like a heartbeat grounding the wildness Arthur was trying to control. It occurred to Arthur that he had never heard Eames play anything before now and shortly after that thought, he lost his place and ground to a halt.
"Again," Eames said, without judgment and only the hint of a smile, tapping at the stand with a finger, so Arthur began again.
It went better the second time, and the result was something like a war between them and something like a push-and-pull and something like a storm of sound with Arthur sitting near the centre. It was, Arthur had to admit, regrettably brilliant.
At the end of the third movement, Arthur's fingers fumbled again when he had to squint too long to make out whether the instruction scribbled over the bars was for pianissimo or prestezza. He didn't wait for Eames's instruction to begin again, tucking the violin under his chin immediately.
"Your handwriting is terrible," he said and then played right over Eames's surprised laughter.
After the French ambassador's birthday, there was a commission for the Count Gambara's wife and then for the Imperial ambassador and after that, an unending number of sonatas and half-finished operettas and training exercise after training exercise for the younger students. Arthur's afternoon rehearsals were steadily replaced by being pushed up the stairs to Eames's rooms, handed a violin, and told to play through whatever Eames put in front of him. Sometimes he played on his own while Eames scribbled more notes onto parchment, seemingly revising extemporaneously as Arthur played; sometimes they played together, with Eames picking up whatever instrument was necessary to fill in around Arthur's violin. He was, it appeared, equally good with them all.
Eames never paid him any particular attention during orchestra rehearsals as this went on. But when they went through his compositions in the afternoon, he smiled at Arthur and teased him over a poorly-played phrase and never minded when Arthur's response was to scowl.
"I would've done it right if you wrote in your accidentals instead of expecting me to guess," Arthur had finally said one afternoon, snatching the quill from Eames's ink-stained fingers and noting flats and sharps all down the page in front of him.
Eames, deprived of the ability to write anything more for the moment, took the opportunity to stand and stretch, lifting his hands high over his head and then letting them fall bonelessly back to his sides. "Keeps you on your toes, though, doesn't it?" He drifted over and placed both his hands on the back of Arthur's chair, leaning over to add, in a whisper near Arthur's ear, "Wouldn't want you to turn into one of those lazy violinists."
Arthur studiously scratched in another sharp and ignored the hot feeling washing down the back of his neck. "Is that why you force Yusuf to teach all the younger ones?"
He barely caught Eames's crooked grin out of the corner of his eye, but the feeling of him tapping something out – a new song maybe – against the side of Arthur's neck was hard to ignore.
"Among many other reasons," Eames said.
"It's a good thing we didn't get stuck with one of those lazy concert masters," Arthur replied and then nearly laughed when Eames's fingers abruptly stopped their tapping.
Eames peered at him as though Arthur had suddenly done something miraculous and unexpected, like grown a third arm or sprouted wings. "Was that a joke?" he asked. "Did you just tell a joke?"
And Arthur had to duck his head to hide his smile, pressing his thumb against his mouth and hopefully not leaving ink smeared behind. "Sit down. Let's do this again," he said, dropping the quill onto the edge of the music stand, and Eames exhaled a short laugh, tapped his knuckles one more time against Arthur's neck, and did.
After a while, Arthur couldn't ignore how his days started to circle around these times. He found his attention drifting more than it had in the first few days. He spent less time thinking about scales and more time thinking about the last piece Eames had shared or wondering about what the next would be. He felt anxious but sluggish, unable to concentrate yet aware of every moment passing by. For a while, he wondered if he was getting sick before he realized that it wasn't a sickness at all.
At the abbey, the novices had sometimes snuck into town to meet with women, but it was frowned on and hard to manage in secret when everyone knew everyone else's business. At the Carità, everyone still knew everyone else's business, but no one really seemed to care. Boys snuck into the girls' wing. Girls found ways out after dark to meet their admirers by gondola. Mallorie told stories – to Dominick's clear discomfort – about whole lines of gondolas that would float past their windows in the evening and the men who would call up to them in the hopes of catching a glimpse of any one of the girls.
Arthur had never been surrounded by such a sea of young romantics, and it was that, more than anything else, that he eventually blamed for the mood that had overtaken him. Awake or asleep, in rehearsal or alone, he caught himself thinking about Eames and what might happen if his hand went to the back of Arthur's neck next time, not his shoulder; if he leaned in close to make his next correction, if his lips brushed the shell of Arthur's ear or the edge of his jaw, even just by accident.
Where he used to go find Dominick and Mallorie in the afternoons before practice with Eames, he now found himself hurrying back to his room every time to splash his face and hands and neck with cold water in the hopes of keeping these thoughts well below the surface and hidden.
It would, he told himself firmly, all pass in time.
Time, unfortunately, had other plans and did not seem prepared to pass fast enough, and the day Arthur looked up in rehearsal to find Eames staring intently at him was the day that Arthur nearly embarrassed himself in front of everyone for the first time, his skin prickling so badly that he almost dropped his violin on his feet.
Eames raised his hands to stop them, and the orchestra came to an awkward, lumbering halt.
"Arthur," said Eames, forehead now wrinkled in thought, "what violin are you playing?"
Arthur looked down at the instrument in his hands. It was not as nice as the one Eames gave him to play when they played together, but he'd had it since the first day now and had grown used to its peculiarities and the wear on its strings.
"The one you gave me," he said.
Eames frowned. There was a laugh from somewhere over in the French horns.
"That won't do in concert," Eames said, taking a step closer and staring now at the violin. Arthur's fingers closed around the neck, more protectively than he'd intended. Eames looked up and met his eyes. "Have Yusuf give you an allowance for a new one."
"Fine," said Arthur, with no intention of doing any such thing. And, in fact, the moment he stepped out of rehearsal that day, he promptly forgot about it. Later that night, practicing in his window as usual, he remembered, but it seemed like an unnecessary luxury to buy a new violin when the old one suited him fine. He resolved to just play better to make up for whatever the instrument lacked.
He got away with it for three days, until Eames caught sight of the case as he and Dominick came into the hall and cut off in the middle of comforting their teary-eyed organist Michieletta to point at the door instead.
"Out," he said in his rare, serious tone of voice. Arthur opened his mouth to protest, but Eames just shook his head and said, more loudly, "Out. And don't come back until you have something worthwhile to play on."
Uncertain whether to be more annoyed or humiliated, Arthur bit down on his lower lip and left. In the hall, he was tempted to punch at the wall, but his fingers were more important now than they had been back in the monastery where he'd sometimes punch walls when one of the brothers scolded him. He kicked it instead and then went to sit in the courtyard and not think about Eames. Unsuccessfully, as usual.
Dominick and Mallorie found him there still after rehearsal let out. Mallorie sank down on the grass beside him and pressed her hand against his shoulder.
"You are not really part of the orchestra until you have been thrown out once," she promised.
"Let's go," Dominick said, nudging at Arthur's foot with his own. "We'll help you pick one out."
Arthur frowned at his knees for a moment longer, but there was nothing else to be done. He let Dominick help him to his feet and let Mallorie usher them both forward.
The gondoliers shouted at them as they made their way along the streets, offering rides and trying to underbid each other, occasionally attempting to appeal to Mallorie's vanity, as Dominick noted wryly.
"A very easy thing to do, usually," Mallorie whispered into Arthur's ear, making Arthur smile and almost forget about the awfulness of the morning, for the length of another bridge at least.
The Piazza San Marco was not at the heart of Venice, but it was clearly Venice's heart. Arthur, who had not had much reason to leave the Carità in the months since he arrived, had never made it there, but he had heard about it over and over and had pictured it as a great, flat, empty place. Great and flat, it was, but empty it was certainly not.
People and pigeons filled the square. At the eastern end, the domes and arches of the basilica and the tall, rectangular clock tower loomed over like watchful giants, casting long shadows. Merchants selling every sort of good imaginable – from silk and books to steel and oranges – had found places to put up shop in the piazza and along the adjoining piazzetta, running right down to the water where more merchants were unloading in the quay.
Dominick took Mallorie's hand as they weaved through the crowd, and Mallorie caught Arthur's arm and slipped hers around his at the elbow, and the three of them made their way through the piazza and out toward the water. Arthur paid little attention to where they were going, staring up at the lions and crocodiles carved into the walls of the buildings around them.
The shop, when they reached it, was small and narrow and poorly lit, but Arthur imagined that even a small shop on the square must be only for the richer merchants. Inside, Arthur found Saito, seated by an old table, a violin held in one hand, a sharp tool in the other.
"Arthur," he said, lowering the violin to rest on his knee, "it seems you have had some success since I saw you last."
As before, it was hard to tell what Saito might be thinking behind the slightly amused look on his face. Arthur caught Dominick raising an eyebrow in his direction and waved his hand in a promise to tell the story later.
"I'm here to buy a violin," Arthur said.
Saito's expression changed in an instant. He became more attentive first and then looked Arthur over, assessing, as if judging the correct instrument for an individual was a simple matter of studying their face. Placing the violin in his hands on the table, he stood and brushed the small fragments of wood and dust off his shirt to join the many others waiting on the floor.
"Wait a moment," he said. "I think I know the one you want."
He disappeared into the back, past the row of bows hanging from the ceiling, and returned shortly with a case in his hands. He put the case down on the table, opened it, and withdrew a violin.
"That's," Arthur began but then got no further.
Saito tested the strings one at a time with his finger, leisurely. "The violin you played that day, yes," he said. "It seemed to suit you."
As soon as Saito was satisfied, he held it out to Arthur, and Arthur grabbed it, greedy, and held it in his hands and wondered at how well it fit there.
"I don't know if I can afford it," he said, with great reluctance.
"It's slightly used," Saito replied. "I am certain we can work something out."
In the end, Saito did more than Yusuf had provided, but he accepted the purse and Arthur's grudging promise of a favour to be called in sometime in the future as adequate payment. Arthur tried not to be bothered by the inspecifity of that promise and gripped the handle of the case tightly as he and Dominick and Mallorie stepped out onto the piazzetta.
"Let's stay out a little longer," Mallorie said, shading her eyes from the sun with her hand. "Let's not go back yet."
Dominick, of course, couldn't say no, and Arthur wondered if he could have either, if he'd wanted to. They sat on stones at the edge of the piazza and ate brioche that Dominick bought for them out of his own pocket money. The outer pastry layers flaked and stuck to Arthur's fingers. The sun was warm. Arthur thought that the day, surprisingly, had turned out very nearly perfect after all, something good made out of something sour. And then he wondered what it would sound like if Eames wrote a sonata about the day. And then he frowned at himself.
"Look!" Mallorie said, suddenly, pointing across the piazza to where a carriage was pulling up in front of the basilica. It was ornately built and painted in bright colours but draped in black cloth, the curtains in the windows drawn tightly shut. Mourners, Arthur decided, coming to the basilica to pay their respects.
"Maybe it's the duke," Dominick mused, licking pastry off his thumb.
Mallorie made a dismissive noise and clucked her tongue. "If the duke comes to Venice, we will hear of it."
"Who's the duke?" Arthur asked.
Mallorie's smile was mischievous. "A monster who eats bad violinist who do not practice enough," she said.
Dominick snorted. Arthur smiled thinly.
"I have nothing to worry about then, do I?" he said.
"The duke," said Dominick patiently, "is the duke of Cremona." He looked at Arthur, waiting for a spark of recognition but when Arthur looked back blankly, he continued. "Years and years ago, the duke married a beautiful woman from the north and together, they had a child."
"One day," Mallorie said, taking over, watching the carriage as a lady and man, dressed in black, stepped out and started toward the basilica door, "the duke's wife and the child were travelling home from Rome when a storm blew in. Their ship was blown onto the rocks, and the duke's wife was lost. The baby was never seen again."
The man and woman reached the door, and a priest emerged to invite them in. The big door closed behind them, and the carriage pulled away to find a quieter place to wait.
"The duke was convinced that his child still lived," Dominick said. "He asked the master violinmaker Stradivarius to make a violin so beautiful, so magical, that it would call his child back to him. Now, every year, the duke travels to another city and asks the best student to play his violin in the hope that, eventually, the mysterious child will appear."
Mallorie smiled wanly at her hands until Dominick reached out and covered both of them with one of his. "A nice story to tell orphans," she said. "If we're very good, someday maybe our rich lost fathers will come for us."
Arthur didn't say anything, but he touched his hand to the case of his new violin and thought about the kind of music it would take to call back a lost child from the sea.
Autumn passed soon, and winter settled in, greyer and wetter than any winter Arthur had known before. The halls of the school were still filled with talk and laughter, but it seemed like a mist had settled over everyone's mood. Arthur and Dominick and Mallorie spent fewer afternoons out in the garden and more time practicing in their rooms or the empty halls.
Even Eames seemed to be affected by the lack of sunshine and the longer nights. In rehearsal, he still grinned and teased and shouted commands for "Longer bows!" or "Keep the pace, timpanis!" over the orchestra but in their private practice together, he was withdrawn and thoughtful. More than once, they would come to the end of a piece, and Eames would lower his bow and stare off into space, eyebrows drawn together, until Arthur cleared his throat and startled Eames out of his reverie.
"I was thinking," Eames would joke sometimes, in a rare flash of self-deprecation. "I thought you'd approve.
It took effort for Arthur to remind himself that, whatever thoughts and ideas and fantasies he found himself afflicted with, he was still just Eames's student, one of many, and it wasn't his place to ask Eames if he was all right.
Arthur could still watch, though, and maybe it became a bit of a study, through the middle of December, when they played concerts for the nobility almost every day, and Eames came to fewer and fewer meals and looked tired more and more often. It was a mystery, and Arthur decided, resolutely, that he hated mysteries.
His only clue came one night when he wasn't even looking for clues. He'd woken up, sweating and hard against the bed's thin mattress from a dream he couldn't remember but could guess at. It was a regular enough occurrence these days that Arthur only sighed into his pillow and pushed himself gingerly out of bed. He'd sit in his window for a while until the sharp, sea smell of the air brought him under control again.
The gondolas below his window rose and fell, dark shapes on the water. Sometimes lamp light would flare from down one of the narrow streets across the canal, but mostly Venice was dark and still. Quiet, Arthur thought, which he liked, but lonely too, which he chose to ignore.
The sudden burst of light from the front door of the Carità, below and to the left of Arthur's window, was unexpected. It dimmed almost immediately as a figure stepped out onto the steps and drew his lantern closer to his body. There was really no way to know if it was Eames, not from behind and in the dark, but Arthur had an instinct built from too many afternoons of studying the line of Eames's shoulders. He watched in expectant silence as the man stepped down onto the cobbles of the street and headed off into the gloom.
When he had almost disappeared from sight entirely, Arthur flung himself away from the window and grabbed up his trousers from the day before. He didn't even stop to change out of his nightshirt before slipping out into the hall and down the stairs. He had to tread carefully on the ground floor, for fear of rousing one of the teachers, all the time worrying that Eames would be too far gone to follow by the time he reached the street.
Luck favoured Arthur this time, though. He hadn't made it far down the canal before he spotted Eames and his lamp, squatting near the canal in negotiation with a gondolier. Arthur came as close as he dared and waited in the shadow of a tall house.
"Six denari then," Eames was saying, "and you wait to bring me back again."
The gondolier shrugged his shoulders and then nodded. "Get in, master," he said.
Eames straightened up, adjusted his cloak around his shoulders, and handed his lamp down to the gondolier. Then he looked straight back into the dark, at Arthur, and asked, "Are you coming?"
Shocked and a little embarrassed at having been caught so easily, Arthur stood silent and frozen for a moment, but Eames only continued to watch him until eventually, Arthur shook his head and stepped out of the shadows.
"Where are we going?" he asked.
Eames's only response was to smile and step down into the gondola. Arthur followed. Once he was settled on the seat beside Eames, the gondolier dropped his pole into the water and began to push them down the canal.
"Where are we going?" Arthur asked again. Sometimes he had to chase Eames about if he wanted an actual answer.
"A meeting of the governors of the Carità," Eames said, shifting about as he tried to find a comfortable sitting position on the cool, damp wood. "You've come along for one of the most boring exercises known to man, I'm afraid."
Arthur was also uncomfortable where he was sitting. He regretted not stopping for a cloak or a thicker shirt. He could feel the cool condensation clinging to his skin already, but he ignored it determinedly.
"Is this where you've been disappearing to?" he asked.
"Have I been disappearing?" Eames asked back. His eyes slid in Arthur's direction, lingered for a moment, and then went back to looking straight ahead.
This was how Eames was sometimes, Arthur had come to learn. He could talk about music endlessly, openly, in ways that made Arthur's stomach clench with longing for something that wasn't Eames exactly, more Eames's way of seeing the world: something big and astounding and deeply flawed but miraculous anyway.
But ask a question he didn't want to answer, and he could talk around in circles forever. The brothers at the abbazia used to say that Arthur had no patience whatsoever, and Arthur had always believed that to be the truth. Eames, however, was teaching him the value of persistence and stubbornness in its place.
"Yes," he said. "You have been. And you're late all the time and tired and distracted."
Eames chuckled, a soft, surprised noise that rumbled in his throat. "You've been paying attention."
Arthur felt the skin on the back of his neck and the tops of his ears prickle and grow warm. Paying attention wasn't a secret, but it was so close to something that was. "Eames," he said, covering discomfort up with irritation.
"Arthur," Eames countered, turning his face to look at him, a small and weary smile tugging at one corner of his mouth. Arthur tried to pull apart the expression the way he'd pull apart a phrase of music, but they were drifting under a bridge in the next moment and whatever it was and whatever it was meant to mean was lost in the dark.
By the time they'd emerged again into the oily yellow lamplight, the expression was gone, and Eames was scratching his jaw thoughtfully. "It's one of the reasons," he said eventually, which was more than Arthur had expected to hear at all. "Explanations are rarely tidy."
"But they can be," Arthur said, being difficult for lack of anything else to say.
Eames made a noise of vague assent and tucked his hand away under the folds of his cloak. He looked warm, and it made Arthur want to shiver. He didn't, pressing his hands against his trousers to keep them warm instead.
They had strayed into a much wealthier neighbourhood. Arthur could tell by the way the buildings hung over the water, wider and domed and edged with gold. The gondola began to slip to the left, drawing up along the canal wall. Eames flipped a coin to the gondolier and climbed out. Once up on the street, he turned back and held his hand out to Arthur. Arthur frowned but took it anyway.
The house Eames led him to wasn't any place that Arthur recognized. A servant let them in through the big front doors and offered to take Eames's cloak and then another greeted them, casting one uncertain look in Arthur's direction, before leading them back to the drawing room.
The room was filled with old men, the youngest a good twenty years older than Eames even, and all richly enough dressed that even if Arthur's age didn't make him feel conspicuous, his state of dress would. As would the six sets of eyes that fixed on him almost immediately.
"Maestro," said one man with a full beard, "you're late again."
"Who have you brought with you?" asked another.
"Gentlemen," said Eames in a tone that Arthur had never heard him use before, gesturing broadly with his hands. It was all too polite, flawless, faultless manners, but it was clearly a performance, as though Eames was stepping lightly around all the things he actually meant to say and waiting for someone in the room to call him on it. "My apologies for being tardy. This is Arthur, one of our most talented students. He's agreed to take some notes for me tonight." Eames held up both his hands in front of his chest and wiggled his fingers. "Mustn't tire these hands out before Christmas mass, hm?"
It was a poor excuse, Arthur thought, and the faces of the governors seemed to agree, but no one said anything as Eames took his place at the table and Arthur found a spot to stand nearby. Eames didn't even bother to pass him paper and quill, making the poor excuse truly terrible.
The meeting proved to be about as boring as Arthur had been warned. They spent what seemed like endless minutes debating the allowance to be given to the Carità for replacement bow strings and whether to expand the choral programme in the new year.
There were moments of fleeting interest. Arthur had never given much thought, in the past few months, to how the Carità was organized or who paid for the education he and the others were receiving. But the men spent so much time arguing in circles, trying to guess at impossibility like how much wheat might cost next summer, that he eventually tuned out and found his gaze settling on Eames who was clearly paying the minimum attention himself, staring into the middle distance and tugging thoughtfully on his lower lip.
Until, that is, the man with the beard finished noting something in the ledger in front of him and said, "And then, of course, there is the matter of your contract with the ospedale, maestro."
Eames's posture didn't change, but there was a flicker of focus across his face. Arthur recognized it because it looked a lot like the moment when a thread of music in Eames's head resolved into something he could put down on paper. "Yes," Eames agreed with the barest hint of a smile, "and then there is my contract."
"We will be voting again once carnival is past," said the man to Eames's immediate left, in the same sort of overly polite tone as Eames. "You must know there are concerns."
"You're a very good composer," said one governor, "but you spend too much time on your own compositions and not enough time with your pupils."
"You still refuse to teach the younger violins," complained another. "We have guests from all over Europe who come to hear the orchestra play, and I promise you they are not coming to hear our oboes. You have a percussion master teaching the violins, Eames, for the love of God!"
Arthur felt his eyebrows furrow almost of their own accord, but Eames was still lounging carelessly in his chair. To Arthur's growing horror, all Eames did was shrug his shoulders and say, "When the time comes, I hope you gentlemen will accept that I'm doing what's best for my students, even if it doesn't seem that way."
No one looked convinced, Arthur least of all.
Arthur didn't say anything until after the door had shut, and Eames had pulled his cloak back around his shoulders. He half-expected Eames to say something first, offer some sort of explanation, but Eames just struck off into the damp and dark as though nothing had happened at all. Arthur clenched his teeth and followed after.
"They want to remove you as concert master," he said to Eames's back when holding it in was finally too much.
Eames glanced over his shoulder and lifted an eyebrow at Arthur in surprise. "I know," he said. "They have for a while now."
He turned back toward the canal, but Arthur stopped short where he was and stared at Eames's back. He couldn't say whether he was more furious or upset. All he knew was something in his chest felt tight in a way that used to only happen when he was thinking about his parents.
It took Eames another few steps before he realized Arthur was no longer following him and looked back again.
"Are you going to do anything about it? Do you even care?" Arthur asked.
Eames looked at him, his expression shifting from curious to irritated to something unreadable. Arthur shivered and told himself it was because it was even colder out now than it had been earlier.
"Yes, I care," Eames said, coming a few steps closer, his eyes fixed on Arthur's. "Do you really think I don't?"
Part of Arthur thought he should look away. It was what the others did when Eames lectured them in practice. They would look down at their music or down at their shoes. Even Mallorie would pretend to be more interested in making sure the keys on her flute moved smoothly. I should look away, Arthur thought and then didn't.
Eames stared back, steadily and for a long time, but in the end, he was the one who looked away first. With a sigh, he scratched his nose and reached up to undo the cloak fastenings at his throat. "Did you know I was meant to be a priest once?" he asked.
"No," said Arthur uncertainly.
"It's the truth." Eames pulled his cloak off his shoulders and shook it out. "My family was never very rich, and I was the eldest so I was meant to make something respectable of myself. When I was your age, I was studying at the parish just outside of Cremona. I would've received my tonsure before long if I had kept on with it."
Arthur watched silently as Eames gave the cloak one last shake and then stepped forward and wrapped it around Arthur's shoulders. Too cold to object but too embarrassed to say thank you, Arthur stood absolutely still as the warm, heavy weight settled on him and Eames adjusted the line of the shoulders until the cloak lay flat.
"That's where I learned to play and read music and compose," Eames continued, "which proved to be my downfall in the end. The priest instructing me said I took too much pride in my music and refused to recommend me for ordination." He looked up from the cloak and caught Arthur's eye again. "It was, I think, for the best in the end. I would have made a terrible priest."
"I don't see your point," Arthur said. He felt like he was talking around something stuck in his throat.
Eames stepped back. For a moment, though, the weight of the cloak made it feel as though his hands were still there, on Arthur's shoulders. "The point, Arthur, is that I have wasted quite a lot of my life on something I wasn't meant for, and I don't see the attraction in wasting more of it trying to convince a group of men who refuse to be convinced."
Arthur frowned at first but slowly, a thought occurred to him. "You have a plan," he said, perhaps more sceptically than he'd intended.
Eames's answering grin was sudden, brief and crooked. "Perhaps," he said. "Extend me a little faith, Arthur, and maybe you'll see."
It was this, more than anything about the night, that stuck with Arthur. Maybe sensing that Arthur needed to mull it all over, Eames didn't try to lure him into conversation as they climbed back into the gondola and were steadily pushed back on the trip to the Carità.
He'd never been good at faith, really, not unquestioned and unexamined faith. It was strange to look back and think about how close he'd come to beginning his novitiate – and all the faith that would have inherently entailed – when it was hard to even trust that Eames knew what he was doing now. A little faith shouldn't have been impossible, but it seemed that, in this case, it was.
The idea that one morning he could wake up and go to breakfast and find someone else sitting in Eames's habitually empty chair, the idea that someone else might lead the orchestra, that one day he might never have another opportunity to play with Eames again, was too big to leave to trust and uncertainty.
When they reached the door of the Carità, Arthur took off Eames's cloak and handed it over. Eames draped it across his free arm.
"I feel like I should say something about sneaking out at night," Eames said, one eyebrow raised.
Arthur lifted an eyebrow back, mirroring Eames expression. "I'll stop when you do," he said, and Eames huffed a laugh, shaking his head as he opened the door for both of them.
They went their separate ways on the stairs, Eames continuing on up to his rooms and Arthur creeping quietly down the boy's hall to his own. He didn't bother to undress again and climbed into bed where he lay awake, trying to think up a plan of his own, until morning.
The first morning of carnival, Arthur woke to the sound of a loud splash and whooping laughter outside his window. He dragged himself out of bed and stuck his head out, resting his arms on the sill. A group of the younger boys were gathered by the canal below, laughing at one of their friends who had fallen – or more likely, been pushed – in. Arthur rolled his eyes and pulled his head back inside.
As he was dressing, there was a knock on the door. He finished lacing up his trousers and then opened the door to find Dominick, half-leaning against the wall with his hand still poised in the air, ready to knock again.
"There you are," he said. "Come on."
"Are we in a hurry?" Arthur asked, combing his fingers through his hair until it felt like it was lying flat.
Dominick looked at him skeptically and then put a hand firmly on his shoulder and steered him out of his room, closing the door for him. Arthur only made a muffled noise of protest as he was marched down the hall.
"It's your first carnival," Dominick explained. "We have to make the most of our time."
Dominick had both his hands on Arthur's back, pressing firmly between his shoulder blades, so he couldn't see Arthur's frown. For Arthur, carnival had been a looming event on the horizon for at least a month now, dreaded not anticipated. He wasn't sure he could celebrate it when he still hadn't sorted out a plan to save Eames.
He couldn't tell Dominick that, though, because he hadn't mentioned anything about the night he'd followed Eames to the governors' meeting, and it was long enough ago now that Dominick would want to know why he hadn't brought it up sooner. The only answer Arthur had was that it felt like a secret at the time.
The meal hall was even louder than usual. Arthur thought that he was used to it now, after surviving the days leading up to Christmas or nights before performances, but it wasn't comparable at all. Now, it was like a rising tide of noise, voices and laughter piling on top of each other like waves coming in.
Even Eames had arrived more or less on time that morning. As he sat in his usual place with Dominick and Mallorie, Arthur caught a glimpse of him at the far teachers' table, head cocked to one side, listening to something Yusuf was trying to tell him with an expression of detached concentration. Just as Arthur was prepared to look away, Eames's eyes suddenly shifted and caught his. Arthur froze and felt his ears warm at being caught and then Eames winked at him, and Arthur promptly looked away before his whole face had an opportunity to turn red.
Breakfast was porridge, as usual, but there was cheese and melon and bits of cured ham as well, as a special treat. Mallorie made him promise, between bites, that he'd come with her to San Marco square in the afternoon to see the acrobats. Arthur promised in the vague hope that agreeing once would allow him to beg out of the rest of the week's festivities.
After breakfast came individual practices. Eames had given Arthur, Dominick, and Valente, who played the basso continuo, a sonata to practice for the patrician's birthday after Lent. Dominick and Valente were still struggling with some of the middle sections, but Arthur had watched Eames write it all in bits and pieces, a line of melody first and then a few notes in counterpoint and then a sudden flood of music, scrawled down on the page in less than a day. By now, Arthur knew most of it by heart.
Dominick ran off almost as soon as they were done to meet Mallorie before their choral rehearsal. Arthur, who had been thankfully excused from choral not long after arriving when it became clear he could barely hold a note, stayed behind to practice some of the newer music Eames had written. He'd barely made it through the first movement when a voice behind him startled him so badly that his bow nearly went screeching over the strings.
"I feel like you may have missed the point of carnival, Arthur," Eames said.
Arthur adjusted his hold on his bow, loosening the grip of his fingers, and didn't feel the need to turn around to say, "Shouldn't you be somewhere teaching someone something?"
Eames was nearly silent as he moved from the door to stand behind Arthur and peer over his shoulder at what he'd been practicing. "You must stop worrying," he said, much too close to Arthur's ear. His hand appeared in Arthur's peripheral vision, gesturing at the sheet of music on his stand. "Play for me."
It was better than attempting conversation in that moment, so Arthur took a deep breath, hoping to steady himself, brought his bow down until it only barely brushed the strings, and began to play. Eames was silent behind him, but he didn't move, and Arthur could feel his breath ruffling the short hairs at his neck with every count of four, but he kept playing.
"Full bow on these notes," Eames instructed in a voice barely above a whisper as Arthur left the allegro and tumbled into the andante. Eames's fingers curled around his shoulder suddenly, and Arthur couldn't help the small gasp that fell out of his mouth and could only hope that Eames had been listening too closely to the music to hear it.
He played, and it wasn't anything like the way he usually played, precise and thoughtful. This was more like that first time, when Saito had put the violin in his hands and the music had come up from somewhere buried deep inside Arthur and thundered through his fingers like it was daring him to try to stop it.
"Yes," Eames breathed. "Just like that. Let it dance."
Arthur didn't know what the song was meant to be about. Sometimes he could tell, and sometimes he couldn't. When Eames wrote something on commission, sometimes there was no meaning at all, just a lovely progression of sounds. This was different, bright and furious like Eames tended to be but not happy, exactly. It made Arthur ache.
Eames's fingers shifted on his shoulder, moving higher to rest along the edge of his shirt, and then he felt something press against the back of his head. Thoughts split between his fingers and the rest of him, it took Arthur a moment to realize that Eames was pressing his nose into Arthur's hair, his forehead resting against the crown of Arthur's head.
Arthur's breath hitched again, and this time his bow did wobble, making what was supposed to be a crisp A come out mushy and flat. He considered letting that little mistake be the end of it, reason enough to let his violin drop and to lean back into Eames's warm breath and warm hand, but then Eames tightened his fingers on Arthur's shoulder, part You'll play it right next time and part Go on.
So Arthur took a breath into his shaky lungs and somehow did, dazed and distracted and all too aware of how his skin felt too tight all over. Almost improbably, he managed until the end. Eames didn't move or say anything the entire time and when the last note drew to an end, Arthur let his eyes fall shut and for a moment, they just sat like that. It felt endless to Arthur, all too aware of his fingers almost trembling where they rested on his thigh and the growing ache where he was growing hard against his trousers.
Finally, slowly, Eames retreated, moving back first and then letting his hand drop away. It broke the moment and, with it, Arthur's stillness. He turned and stared up at Eames, trying to dissect the pieces of his expression to find some sort of root cause. But Eames's face was carefully blank, one hand over his mouth, staring off into the middle distance. When he noticed Arthur staring, he seemed to start and forced a stiff, performance smile onto his face.
"You are brilliant, Arthur," he said.
In any other moment, such a clear, unencumbered compliment might make Arthur proud but here and now, it only irritated him. Eames said it almost like an apology, like it was something he regretted, like things might be easier if Arthur wasn't. Arthur almost snapped at that in annoyance until he realized: Eames said it like he was getting ready to say goodbye.
"Don't," Arthur said, his voice coming out unexpectedly rough.
Eames just smiled wanly. "No," he agreed. "We aren't beaten quite yet. But it occurred to me that if things don't go as planned, I may miss your moody brilliance most of all."
"Eames," Arthur began but then he was uncertain what to say next. It didn't seem to matter much, though, as Eames moved close again and laid his palm lightly over Arthur's mouth, curved just enough so that all Arthur could taste was the faint staleness of breathing in his own breath.
"Not yet," Eames said, speaking in a whisper again, eyebrows raised opaquely. He removed his hand and wiped it against his shirt. When he smiled again, this time it seemed more real. "Pack up your things. Go enjoy the sunshine. Find yourself a mask and be someone else for a while. I'll have a surprise for you later."
Arthur, truly and sincerely tired of surprises and mysteries, just frowned harder, making Eames laugh.
"Go," he ordered, and Arthur didn't hate the feeling of giving in any less than usual, but it did make him feel slightly better to hear Eames laugh.
He considered going back to his room where he could roll onto his bed and replay the last few moments over in his mind. He couldn't trust Eames not to check up on him, though, just to see if his order had been obeyed, and Arthur needed space and time to think before he was ready to try another conversation. So, still dazed and unsettled, he put his violin away in the orchestra hall and pushed his way out onto the street.
With Mallorie and Dominick still locked away in choral practice, Arthur didn't want to wander far from the school. However, this turned out to be a mostly unnecessary worry. He'd barely stepped outside when something smashed on the steps at his feet, making him jump back in surprise and leaving behind white flecks of broken egg shell and the thick smell of rose water. Arthur looked down at the two young, masked men at the bottom of the steps.
"I thought it was one of the girls," said the one wearing a plain gold mask.
His friend, face covered in a mask that was a patchwork of blue and yellow and red squares, clasped him on the shoulder and laughed. "You're such a fool," he said, grabbing a handful of his friend's shirt and dragging him off.
Looking for carnival, apparently, was entirely unnecessary. Carnival had spread everywhere. Shutters had been thrown open to air out the winter and let in the sun. Everyone Arthur could see was wearing a mask. Even the gondoliers and the men hauling goods toward the central square to sell were wearing masks. They shouted greetings to the rich men floating past in their golden barges, and the rich men, with no obvious sense of offense, shouted greetings back. A pair of young men were dancing on a roof across the canal, throwing more eggs down at passers-by. A man and woman kissed on the bridge leading from the school toward San Marco, the woman's hand curling up under the man's jacket. It was as though everyone, the entire city, had all spontaneously, but in perfect coordination, gone insane.
"It seems like you've just been courted," said a light voice, redirecting Arthur's attention away from the couple on the bridge and down to the edge of the canal where a young boy was sitting with his legs swinging out over the water. He was also wearing a mask which covered his eyes, unadorned but painted a brilliant, deep green and secured at the back of his head with a black ribbon, just above his long ponytail. When Arthur just blinked at him in a lack of comprehension, the boy sighed and pointed at the ground in front of Arthur's feet. "The egg," he said. "That's what they're for. Are you new in town?"
Arthur, who had finally begun to enjoy feeling at home in Venice, grimaced. "I've been here for almost half a year."
"Ah," the boy said, pushing himself up to standing and brushing the dirt off his hands on the thighs of his trousers. "Not new to Venice, then, just to carnival." It was difficult to tell with the mask in the way, but he seemed amused. "I'll give you a special offer then. Ten denari, and I'll take you to see all the best sights.
"What?" asked Arthur flatly, only catching a glimpse of the gondolier's pole laid out beside the boy after the word had left his mouth.
The boy tilted his head to one side and pressed his lip together thoughtfully. "You won't find a better price in the whole city right now."
"Sorry. I'm not looking for a gondola," Arthur told him, and the boy deflated visibly.
"If you change your mind," he said, "just ask around for Ariadne."
Arthur froze and looked at the boy, really looked, putting aside the state of his hair and his clothes and focusing instead on the softness of her jaw and chin.
"You're a girl," he said, surprised.
She ticked her chin up defensively. "It's carnival," she replied. "It doesn't matter."
Girl or boy, Arthur didn't especially care, except that it was more proof that the next few days were going to be very nearly unbearable, a break from the order of things that Arthur could do without. He liked the order of things. It made things stable and his days predictable. Without it, life was looking unpredictable, dangerous.
He sat down on the steps, narrowly avoiding sitting in the egg shells, and rubbed his hands over his face.
"Are you all right?" Ariadne asked, the sound of her voice drawing nearer. When Arthur finally forced his head up, she was nearly at the bottom of the stares, looking up at him with brown eyes that were clearly worried, even when partially hidden behind her mask.
"It's been a difficult day," he said, resting his cheek in the palm of his hand.
Ariadne's lips pressed tightly together again in silent thought. Then, all at once, she reached up behind her head and began to untie the ribbon holding her mask on. It came undone almost at once, and she caught the mask in one hand as it started to slip off her cheeks. Without it on, she was quite evidently a woman after all and maybe a little older than Arthur had guessed, too.
"Here." She held the mask out to him. "I think you need it more than I do."
It was strange that both Eames and Ariadne felt that the solution to feeling better was sticking on a mask and pretending to be someone else. Maybe it was a failure of imagination, but Arthur suspected that with mask on, he wouldn't be anyone different at all. He'd just be Arthur in a mask, still confused and worried about Eames, still frustrated by his own inability to do anything about it.
But the gesture was so genuine, and Ariadne's expression was so open and earnest, that Arthur took the mask from her and sat back, turning it over in his hands. It was thin, made of layers and layers of paper, moulded together with some sort of paste.
"Can you come back later?" he asked. "My friends and I are going to the piazza. We could hire you." After a moment's thought, he added, "For six denari."
"Eight," she countered without hesitating, and Arthur, grudgingly, had to respect the speed of it.
"Fine," he said, getting back to his feet. "Eight."
Ariadne smiled, so wide that Arthur had the sneaking feeling that he'd been cheated or tricked despite everything, and tipped her head in agreement.
He went back inside after sorting the details out with Ariadne, having nominally filled Eames's instructions both to get sunshine and a mask. He took the stairs up to his room two at a time and shut the door behind him. The faint sound of music drifted up from the floor below, wobbly and uneven because it was Yusuf's youngest group of violins still learning how to keep the pressure of their bows steady.
Arthur set the mask on the table by his bed and then threw himself back on the bed itself, tucking his itchy, straw-stuffed pillow under his head and intertwining his fingers on his chest. He made an effort to think about something else, anything else, even going so far as to try to make plans for how to spend the rest of his free time during carnival, despite his growing dislike of the holiday, but it wasn't much use. His thoughts kept tipping over in directions he didn't intend like a ship with all its cargo loaded onto only one side. He couldn't successfully find a way to avoid thinking about Eames – and not even
useful thoughts like how to help him but unproductive, annoyingly insistent ones about the shape of his mouth and the strength of his fingers.
With a huff, Arthur rolled onto his side and glared at the mask. Arthur was almost a man, full-grown, and it was unfair that he had managed to spend most of his life wanting very little only to have it all burst out at once, as if it had been laying in wait all this time.
He could feel a tickling behind his ear, which in reality was probably only a loose thread or a stray piece of straw, but which for a moment reminded Arthur of the tickle of Eames's breath on his neck. When he shut his eyes, the feeling grew even stronger, making his skin tighten down his arms and up his thighs and heavy warmth spread out in his stomach.
Despite everything he'd tried, he wanted Eames in a way that made him want to do impulsive, stupid things just to catch his attention and keep it. It didn't matter that someone was trying to take him away right now because the thoughts just kept tumbling out, one on top of the other, all the details Arthur hadn't been aware he was storing up from all those afternoons rehearsing together. Eames's laugh, and his smell, and the lines at the corners for his eyes, and the broadness of his back.
Arthur found his breath coming in short gasps, even though he'd hardly moved, and there was a fine layer of sweat breaking out along his collar as well. He shifted, trying to shove his face into his pillow until he could get control of himself again, but the movement rubbed the hard length of his cock up against the mattress and that one motion sent something terrible and wonderful reverberating up his back to escape out his mouth in a gasp.
And from there, it was all Arthur could do, really, to not scramble at the string of his trousers, tugging it loose, so that he could shove his hand down under the cloth and wrap his fingers around his cock. He rocked into it, mouth falling open and lower lip rubbing helplessly against the rough fabric of his pillow, until he came, thinking hard about how Eames's voice had sounded when he'd said, "Just like that."
For a few minutes after, Arthur floated in an in-between place, managing not to care much about Eames or carnival or any of the things that had been important to him over the last few months. Maybe that was why masturbation had been frowned on more severely than the rest of the sins by the brothers at the monastery: nothing else seemed to matter much afterward.
It was the sudden burst of noise in the hallway, chatter and the stampede of footsteps as the other students made their way down to orchestra practice that brought Arthur back to the present. He bit down on his tongue, took in one deep breath, and swung himself back up to sitting. He wiped himself down hurriedly with the cloth near his wash basin and then slipped out the door and joined the others on their way down.
Dominick met him at the bottom of the stairs.
"We couldn't find you after choral," he said.
"I fell asleep," Arthur replied, hoping his cheeks only felt flushed and didn't look it.
Dominick laughed. "That's good. You'll need to save your energy for Mallorie's plans."
Arthur, rather than risk his lie untangling itself, only shrugged.
Mallorie was waiting outside the orchestra hall when they arrived, her flute case in one hand and an ornate white and gold mask in the other. She sprang forward as soon as she saw them and sprawled herself on Dominick's shoulder, pillowing her chin on the back of her hand.
"Masks. As soon as Eames lets us go," she said.
Dominick laughed and made as if to snatch at Mallorie's mask for a better look, but she lifted it up in the air and out of his reach before his fingertips even brushed the edge.
"Don't you want me to match?" Dominick asked, teasing.
Not particularly in a teasing mood, Arthur left them to it, slipping into the practice room and retrieving his violin. Many of the other students were wearing masks as they tuned up, making the orchestra room a sea of purple, blue, green and gold faces. Arthur took his place in the front row and began his own tuning with even more concentration than usual. It made it easier to ignore the twin looks of concern that Dominick and Mallorie sent in his direction when they finally entered.
The brothers at the monastery, Arthur decided, may have known what they were talking about, after all. He felt sticky now and even more out of sorts than before.
The only thing that might have made him feel better was if Eames had come in looking at least as terrible as Arthur felt, but Eames, when he arrived, looked just as usual, cheerfully prepared to rip them all apart. Arthur tried his best to keep his eyes down, busying himself with more tuning and arranging his sheet music, but it seemed like every time he blinked, they'd crawled back up to fix on Eames. And Eames, in return, didn't even seem aware that Arthur was there at all, dragging a spare stool toward the centre of the room and carefully laying a violin case down on top of it.
"I have quite the surprise for you all," Eames said, stepping back around the case and carefully undoing the latches. He lifted the lid, effectively blocking the contents of the case from view. Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur could see most of the rest of the front row lean forward in the hopes of getting a better peek.
"You've all heard the story of the duke of Cremona's lost heir, I trust?" Eames continued, fiddling with something out of sight in the case and then producing a violin bow, which he held aloft, testing the tension of the strings with a tug of his fingers. There was a dutiful chorus of Yes, Maestro, mostly from the horns. "I never paid much attention to it myself, but the duke's travels have brought him to Venice for carnival, and I have convinced him that the Carità is where he will find his violinist."
The violin Eames lifted from the case did not look particularly special. Arthur wondered if it was only high expectations that made it look a little battered, the stain of the wood a little worn. But then, if the story was all true, this violin had been making the journey from city to city for many years and had been played by many different sets of hands.
Eames's hands now were steady and sure as he lifted the violin up to his shoulder, settling it under his chin, and began to play. Eames's feelings on the violin were famous, and Arthur had always assumed, to the degree he'd given it any thought, that one of the reason Eames didn't like the violin was because he wasn't very good at playing it.
But as Eames began to play, the gentleness of his fingers dismissed that notion. It wasn't a particularly sad song he chose to play, though it didn't have the sort of spinning, barely-controlled energy of his usual compositions either. The sound of the violin somehow made it mournful anyway, its tone pure but sad, like the violin was crying for the lost heir.
Eames didn't bother to play the whole song, cutting off suddenly after a few moments. There was a scattering of applause from the collected students. Even Arthur raised his hands and clapped a bit before he could think better of it. Eames held up his hands in a show of fake modesty.
"Yes, yes," he said. "It's certainly a well-built instrument." He held it up and looked it over with an expression that suggested that, for a violin, it would do. "On the last night of carnival, we'll put it in the hands of our best violinist and then we'll see if ‘well-built' is enough to call back a missing child."
At that, Eames's eyes finally came to rest on Arthur and in that moment, Arthur understood. The duke of Cremona would make a powerful ally and if it was one of Eames's pupils who found the lost heir, there would be no way for the governors to break his contract. This was what Eames had been working towards, the culmination of months, probably, of asking for favours and writing letters to bring the duke here before it was too late.
And Arthur knew that all of his work and practice, his afternoons playing Eames's music and his evenings spent drilling his fingerings over and over again, meant that he was by far the best violinist in all of the Carità. That's what the look on Eames's face meant: on the last night of carnival, it would all be up to him.
"You seem lost in thought tonight, Arthur," Mallorie observed as they joined the long procession of gondolas floating toward San Marco square.
She and Dominick both had masks on now, of the same colour palette if not exactly matching. Ariadne, standing steadily in the bow of the boat, had found a replacement mask during the intervening hours. Only Arthur refused to wear his, though he'd conceded tying it and wearing it on his forehead so that he at least had it with him.
"He isn't always like that?" Ariadne quipped, winning a smile from Dominick who had been very easily won over the moment she'd decided to share the story of Arthur and the perfumed egg.
Mallorie took both of Arthur's hands in hers and held them tightly. "If something is worrying you, you can tell us."
Once that might have been true, but he had kept the things he knew about Eames and the Carità's future secret for so long that he knew that Dominick and Mallorie would be far more interested in why he hadn't told them sooner than they would be in what he had to say. He couldn't blame them for it, but it didn't make him anymore eager to explain.
"It's nothing," Arthur said finally. "I'm just thinking about the duke's violin."
"About how he wants to play it, he means," Dominick corrected, extending his leg out to nudge Arthur's shin with the toe of his shoe.
It wasn't entirely wrong and close enough to the truth that Arthur half-smiled down at his knees in the best approximation he could manage of being bashful over having been caught out. Mallorie narrowed her eyes, searching Arthur's face and body language for some hint that he was letting Dominick help him avoid answering, but Arthur kept his eyes fixed on his knees and eventually she gave up, patting him on the shoulder.
"Our Arthur is the best," she said in the tone of someone who would accept no arguments to the contrary.
Afternoon was settling into early evening by the time they reached the piazza. Ariadne guided them along with steady, sure strokes that seemed mismatched with her size, belying as many hours of practice as Arthur or Mallorie or Dominick spent on their instruments. The sunlight seemed to etch the lines of the waves as if the canal was a wood engraving and not quite real.
They stepped out of the gondola near the far edge of the square when it became obvious that going further would mean weaving between what seemed like hundreds of other gondolas and barges tied up along the canal. Arthur counted out the six coins he owed Ariadne, and she pocketed them with a straight face that was partially ruined by the amusement in her eyes.
"If you ever find yourself in need of a gondola in the future," she said with the sort of impishness that only the overpaid could truly manage.
"I'll find someone who is less obvious about cheating me," Arthur said as Mallorie wound her arm around his and began to drag him off.
On his first visit to the piazza, Arthur had thought there was no way to crowd more people into one place, but it was clear, immediately, that he'd been wrong. People were everywhere now, masked and dressed in bright colours, moving around each other, occasionally grabbing hold of a stranger and breaking into a dance. There was music drifting up from the ducal palace, but it was hard to hear over the celebrating around them and the sound of the seabirds circling overhead, watching from the tops of roofs for the inevitable dropped pastry.
"Dance with me, Arthur," Mallorie instructed, spinning around so that she could capture Arthur's other hand in hers and reposition the one she'd already managed to trap at the curve of her waist. Surprised, Arthur started forward awkwardly and only narrowly avoided stomping on her toes.
Somehow, dancing had been left out of his education at the monastery, and at the Carità as well, and he told Mallorie as much as she attempted to get something more out of him than swaying.
"Do you see that stopping me?" Mallorie asked, laughing. "It's carnival. We can do anything. Follow my lead."
So Arthur did, staring at their feet until he realized that Mallorie really wasn't much better than he was at this and, slowly, he managed to stop worrying about getting it right. One song ended, and there was a pause as the orchestra likely prepared themselves for the next, but Mallorie and Arthur danced right on through the silence. It didn't matter. Arthur held up his arm, and Mallorie twirled in a circle beneath it and soon, they were both laughing.
When they finally stumbled to an end, laughing too hard to keep up even their awkward variation on dancing, the colour was high on Mallorie's cheeks and even Arthur felt surprisingly good. Dominick stepped in to join them, hands filled with mugs of amber liquid. Arthur was thirsty enough that he grabbed one of the mugs without asking and swallowed a large mouthful. It turned out to be passum wine, sweet on his tongue and surprisingly thick, burning on its way down his throat. Mallorie grabbed for her glass too, taking a much larger sip and then sputtering while Dominick laughed.
"Terrible," she accused him, swatting at Dominick's shoulder while he danced out of range.
"I'm terrible?" he asked mildly. "You should've watched the two of you dance. Someday, when you aren't feeling too proud, I'll teach you to do it right."
Mallorie pretended to scowl a moment longer, but she could never stay angry with Dominick for long and soon, she was recapturing both his and Arthur's arms, sandwiching herself safely between them.
"It made Arthur laugh, didn't it?" she muttered, pretending it was to herself.
Arthur looked at her, surprised. This went beyond even Mallorie's persistent sort of nosiness.
"Don't look so surprised," she told him.
"You've been miserable for months," Dominick agreed.
It seemed like something that should annoy him, being seen through when he thought he'd been hiding it well, but Arthur found, to his surprise and vague confusion, that he wasn't bothered much at all. Dominick and Mallorie cared about him and knew him well enough to know when something was wrong. There was something comforting about that.
Arthur took a second, bigger sip of the wine and then reached up and tugged his mask down over his face. It sat loosely, the ribbon coming slightly undone and causing the mask to lilt to the right, but the gesture was there all the same. Maybe the imperfection made the gesture all the better.
"I'm taking care of it," he said. "Everything is going to be fine."
Mallorie looked, if not exactly like she believed him, then at least like she hoped he was right.
As the sun went down, the music stopped entirely and plumes of fireworks shot up from behind the palace, jets of gold sparks that hung shimmering in the air before they vanished. From where Dominick, Mallorie and Arthur stood, they almost looked like they were coming out of the water itself. Mallorie leaned back against Dominick's chest as she watched, and he put his arms around her. Arthur stood beside them and felt warm.
They barely made it back to the Carità dry. Dominick had tried to push Arthur into the canal as they left the square which only made Arthur laugh all the harder when Dominick nearly fell in accidentally going over the last bridge. The perils of drink were another thing the brothers at the monastery had always had a hundred opinions on; Arthur seemed to be set on ignoring all of them today.
At the bottom of the stairs, Mallorie kissed them both on their cheeks, smelling like honey and sea air. "Good night," she said before spinning away and heading up towards the girls' wing.
Arthur watched the wide, ridiculous smile spread over Dominick's face and then clapped him on the shoulder and pushed him towards their own flight of stairs. Despite it being well after dark, there were still plenty of other students milling about in the hall, talking in low voices so as not to draw the attention of any teachers who might still be awake.
Dominick stopped with Arthur at his door, which was unusual enough that Arthur looked up at him with what he hoped, but couldn't be certain, was a quizzical expression on his face.
"Mallorie doesn't always respect peoples' privacy," he said, "but she usually means well." He frowned, looking awkward and like he was having difficulty pinning down the exact words he wanted to say. Finally, he just said, "You know, don't you?"
It was difficult reading between the lines of what Dominick was saying and what he wasn't. Usually, he wouldn't have such a hard time of it, but his brain was feeling as gelatinous and slow as it was loose and relaxed, which made deciphering hard. But he thought, after a moment of frowning concentration, that he got it, the unspoken We're friends and You can come to me if you need to.
"I know," said Arthur. "Goodnight, Dominick."
Dominick looked relieved to have fulfilled his duties of friendship and nodded, raising one hand in a lazy wave. "Goodnight."
It had been a long day, and Arthur did feel tired out by it but once the door had closed, he walked right past his bed to sit in the window, pulling off his shoes and dropping them on the floor by the sill. A thought had been buzzing around in his head since sometime after the second glass of wine. No one, he'd come to realize, played perfectly on an instrument they'd never had a chance to even hold before. There were too many variables in the tension of the strings and the weight of the instrument. With Eames relying on him, Arthur knew he had to be perfect.
He sat there in the dark, without even the candle by his bedside lit, until finally there was a wavering flare of light rising from below. Arthur leaned forward until he could see Eames stepping out of the Carità's doors and closing them behind him, off to another midnight meeting of the governors. He watched as Eames walked down the steps and out onto the streets, as he started his journey down to where the gondoliers were docked and, without looking, raised his hand in a silent wave over his shoulder, as if he knew someone was watching.
Arthur waited until he was entirely gone from sight, barely breathing or moving, and then scrambled from his perch and hurried to the door. He had plenty of time by any reckoning, but Arthur was cautious by nature and could think of, off-hand, a hundred separate things that could cause Eames to come back unexpectedly early. Faster was better.
Barefoot, he could practically run down the halls without making a sound. He didn't, at first, waiting until he was out from under the eyes of the last straggling boys making their way home, but once he hit the empty staircase, he sprinted up them and then down the long, silent, familiar corridors that led to the north wing and Eames's rooms.
Though he was certain the rooms were empty, Arthur was careful with the door, opening it slowly so that the hinges had no reason to protest. The only thing that would be worse than being caught by a teacher sneaking around the school at night would be getting caught while sneaking into the concert master's rooms. But no one appeared to chastise him and once Arthur had the door shut just as carefully behind him, he allowed himself to relax.
Eames's rooms were as haphazardly organized as always, and Arthur worried that with the sheer number of instruments Eames kept about, he might have difficulty locating the duke's violin, but he didn't need to worry in the end. A case was sitting out on the desk Eames usually sat at when composing. Given that it hadn't been displaced to make room for Eames to scrawl out new sheets of music or buried under them, Arthur was fairly certain he need look no further.
The case was plain wood and cracking a bit at the edges from age. Arthur lifted the cover gently with both hands and looked inside at where the violin and bow lay, cradled together in a pillow of folded cloth. The instrument looked as unassuming as it had when Eames had picked it up this afternoon, and Arthur liked that about it. It was easy, but foolish, to underestimate it.
He reached out to touch it for the first time, fingers brushing tentatively over the lower bout and then slipping under to lift it from the case. Arthur had held four different violins now over his life, and he was getting used to learning the different feel of them. This violin did not have the smooth surface and perfect tension of a new violin, but it wasn't like the old violins Arthur had played either. Those showed wear in specific places, the result of years upon years of fingers laying just so on the fingerboard or the exact tilt of the chin.
The story of this violin was different, and it showed on the body. Dozens of different violinists had held this instrument in their hands, each in a slightly different way, putting pressure in slightly different places. And now it was Arthur's turn.
He was reaching out for the bow as well when something on the inside of the cover caught his attention. There, in worn, silver paint, a tiny bird had been drawn. Underneath, there were a few looping lines of poetry: The nightingale takes wing, her secret song to sing. Come follow me by night, my grave will give you light. The lines below that were too faded to be readable, but Arthur didn't need to read any further. The bird was clearly a nightingale on second look, wings spread back behind it as though the painter had captured it just as it was landing on a branch. It was, in every way, almost identical to the ring the monks had found in Arthur's basket.
The recognition washed through Arthur in a cold shock, making him draw in a sharp breath and step back abruptly. His hands twitched with the desire to close into fists and then fumbled as the violin in his fingers rocked unsteadily in response. For the tiniest moment, it seemed as though the violin would settle safely again but then Arthur had to watch in numb panic as the violin tumbled out of his fingers.
It made a flat twanging noise as it hit the floor. Arthur scrambled to pick it up again immediately, nearly overturning a pile of papers on the nearest chair in his hurry.
"No," he muttered under his breath, as he turned the instrument over, running his fingers all over it, looking for even the smallest crack. There was the beginning of one, splitting downwards from the right sound hole, and the purfling around the body had begun to pull away at one corner, opening a seam between the back of the violin and its body. Arthur's heart sunk. It might play still, but it wouldn't sound the same.
The feeling of being very suddenly half-sober was a new and unpleasant one. The part of Arthur's brain that was still soggy and weighed down with wine wanted to stand there and stare at the violin sadly, cursing himself. But the part that was clearing knew that, practically speaking, he didn't have time for that sort of self-indulgence right now.
He set the violin back down in its case and left Eames's rooms even more carefully than he'd arrived. He went down to the orchestra hall on the floor below and picked one of the spare instruments off the shelf. It was well into the night now and even the students prone to breaking curfew were tucked into bed, so there was no one to see him. He took the spare violin back up to Eames's rooms and made the switch. If Eames tried to play it, if he even so much as opened the cover, he'd know the difference but closed and sitting on his desk or picked up to be carried off somewhere else, he wouldn't. It bought Arthur a little time.
He took the duke's violin back to his own room and hid the case in his chest, piled in with his nightshirts and the his few valuables. He paused before closing the lid of the chest and dug around until his fingers found the nightingale ring on its delicate chain. He closed the chest then and sat back on his bed, head bowed and hand closing tight enough around the ring that it would almost certainly leave an impression in his palm.
Arthur didn't sleep well that night. He managed to rest only in snatches, brief moments in between bouts of worrying and forming plans and worrying more and forming back-up plans to his plans. Just before dawn, he managed to have exhausted himself so thoroughly with trying to sleep that he actually fell asleep for a good long stretch only to wake himself up again at the first sound of wheels clattering over the streets below. It was still long before he needed to be up, the sky outside his window was only just turning a brilliant, fiery orange, but he pulled himself out of bed anyway to dress and wash in silence, slipping the chain with the ring on and tucking it under his shirt in a last minute impulse. Then he retrieved the violin from where he'd hidden it and headed out.
Early morning Venice had a peaceful busy-ness about it. A scattering of people filled the streets, getting ready for the day, but without the loud insanity of yesterday's celebrations. Some people still wore masks as they carted their goods up toward San Marco. The gondoliers drifted about with no passengers and no real destination, occasionally bumping their boats into each other and laying their poles across both boats to hold them together as they sat and chatted.
Arthur recognized one of the faces among the gondoliers and called out as he came down the stairs. "Ariadne!"
Ariadne turned her face, maskless, up in Arthur's direction and raised one hand to block the sun as she looked him up and down. "You look like you're in a hurry," she said.
"Do you know the violin-maker's shop in the piazzetta?" he asked, bending down when he reached the side of the canal in the hopes of keeping his business somewhat secret from the casual eavesdropping of the other gondoliers.
Ariadne quirked an eyebrow at him. "Of course," she said. "Six denari."
Arthur decided he wanted this over with badly enough that he wasn't even going to haggle. He dropped down from the side into the little gondola, and Ariadne raised her eyebrows in surprise which quickly faded into a slightly serious, thoughtful expression. She picked up her pole as Arthur got settled with the violin case on his lap and pushed them off.
"Are you in trouble?" she asked, casting a glance back over her shoulder as if checking for anyone who might be in pursuit.
"Not yet," Arthur answered, honest. "But I will be if I can't get this violin fixed."
It was cool and shady down in the canals. If Arthur hadn't been clutching the violin so hard, and sitting so straight, with every muscle tensed, he might have been able to lean back and sleep a little more while Ariadne ferried him along. Ariadne gave him another look up and down.
"How bad is it?" she asked.
Arthur rubbed the bridge of his nose. "It could be worse. Not by much."
Ariadne pressed her lips together tightly and nodded.
The shutters and door of Saito's shop were still shut tightly when they arrived. Ariadne had docked her gondola and tied it up, climbing out after Arthur and only shrugging when he'd stared at her. "You're my best customer," she'd said, as if that was sufficient explanation. She stood beside him now as he pounded on the front door and hoped that Saito was somewhere inside to hear.
Soon, there was the sound of movement from inside, and Arthur stopped pounding just in time because a moment later, the door cracked open just enough to reveal a sliver of Saito's face. He looked as though he'd just woken up, unshaven and a little pale. His look of irritation slid slowly into patient curiosity when he saw that it was Arthur standing there.
"To what do I owe this unexpected and very early visit?" Saito asked.
Arthur lifted the case in his hand a bare inch to draw Saito's eye down toward and said, "This is an emergency. Can we discuss it inside?"
Saito hesitated, but not for long, and then stepped back, drawing the door open wide to admit them both.
"I'm afraid you have interrupted me during my breakfast," he said, shutting the door again once they were inside.
Sure enough, there was a tray on the store counter with a small, brown clay pot of tea and an orange cut into six wedges. Saito returned to his seat on a stool behind the counter, poured himself a fresh cup of tea, and offered an orange slice to Arthur and Ariadne. Arthur shook his head, but Ariadne took hers, biting down on the fleshy fruit against the inside of the rind. Taking a sip of tea, Saito settled his attention back on Arthur.
"Now," he said, "what is your emergency?"
Arthur lifted the violin case onto the counter and opened it. Objectively, the crack running down from the sound-hole didn't look any bigger now than it had the night before but seeing it again still made Arthur want to wince. Saito set his tea cup back down and shifted over to lift the violin out of its case. He ran his thumb down along the crack and then turned the instrument over to look for other damage.
"This isn't the violin I sold you," Saito observed, fingering the split in the purfling.
"No," said Arthur. "It's the duke of Cremona's."
Ariadne made a sputtering, choking noise on her orange and covered her mouth with her hand to cough. Saito didn't say anything, though his eyebrows lifted a fraction. He went on with his inspection as though it was any other violin in his hands until, satisfied, he placed it down on the counter again.
"I can fix it," he said, and Arthur felt such an intense, warm flood of relief that his knees almost buckled. "It won't be easy," Saito continued. "I will need two days, at the very least."
"I don't have much I can pay you with now," Arthur confessed, digging his hand into his purse and producing a few coins, leaving behind enough to pay Ariadne. "But if you fix it, I promise I'll make sure you're paid." He had some vague ideas about convincing Eames to pay Saito once the violin was fixed. Or he could always take his afternoons to play in the piazza until he'd earned enough to pay the debt. He'd find a way to make it work.
"You will owe me quite a few favours before long at this rate, Arthur," Saito said with his usual amusement creeping back into his tone.
Arthur shrugged because owing favours was the least of his problems at the moment. "I'm one of the best violinists in Venice," he pointed out. "There are worse people you could have owing you favours."
With a wry smile and a tilt of his head, Saito acknowledged this and raised two fingers. "Two days," he said.
Ariadne stole another orange slice as they were herded out and ate it on the walk back to the gondola, throwing the peel over the edge of the canal when they reached it. The peel bobbed along on the surface, swaying in the canal's current which would likely inevitably push it out to sea.
"If the violin is being fixed," Ariadne asked, peering at him again, "why do you still look like you're waiting for something terrible to happen?"
It was true. Arthur could feel that his face had settled into a deep, unshakeable frown, even if the rest of him was feeling much better now than before. Some of the tightness had left his jaw and the base of his skull. He could claim it was nothing or that he wasn't certain what the worries lurking in the back of his mind were now, but the truth was that he had a pretty good idea.
He reached into his shirt and produced the chain, holding it out from his chest as far as the chain would allow. The ring dangled in the air, shining as it wound and unwound itself in lazy circles.
"Have you ever seen a nightingale like this?" he asked. Ariadne stepped forward and reached out to pinch the ring between her thumb and index finger, holding it steady so that she could inspect it. "There was one painted on the inside of the violin case too."
"Do you know what?" she said. "I have, and I can take you to see it too."
They stopped at the Carità for long enough to let Arthur find Dominick, coming down the stairs, and beg him to make up excuse for Arthur through the morning practices. Dominick frowned at him in worry and hesitance and a little curiosity until Arthur said, "Just trust me, please" and Dominick relented.
"Just be back before the evening meal," he said, "or they might send someone out to look for you."
"I'll be back in time," Arthur swore and then, with a quick smile that was strained but thankful, he spun around and slipped back through the stream of students to find Ariadne.
A wall of thick grey clouds was starting to roll in as they pushed away once more into the canals. Ariadne poled them along with strong, purposeful strokes; this was no leisurely gondola ride for rich merchants and minor nobles, after all, and if the clouds and the sharp, salt scent in the air was any indication, they had a storm to beat as well. Ariadne, apparently thinking the same thing, kept glancing up at the sky as if daring it to start raining.
"Where are we going?" Arthur asked, in the hopes both of taking her mind off it and of taking his own mind off the weight of his ring against his chest.
It was effective enough, causing Ariadne to look back over her shoulder and then smile in a morbidly amused sort of way. "One of the only places in this city I won't take passengers for any price," she said. "The Island of the Dead."
"Dramatic," Arthur observed, blaming the bumps rising on his skin on the breezes which rocked their gondola gently from side to side as Ariadne continued to push them straight ahead. After a moment more, it occurred to him to point out, "You're taking me."
Ariadne looked away but even from behind, Arthur could see her shoulders hunch up and then drop down in a shrug. "I like puzzles," she explained and then paused, as if uncertain whether to say what she wanted to say next. Ariadne, though, ultimately didn't seem like the sort of person to leave things she thought unsaid. "And it seems important to you," she added, in the end, with only the shortest glance back at Arthur.
Arthur, who was still fundamentally unused to other people caring about things because he cared about them, looked down at his knees and said nothing.
The canals all began to blend into one another before long. Arthur had known that Venice was bigger than the small section of it that had been his whole world for these last few months, but it had never dawned on him just how big or how easy it would be to get lost if he ventured too far beyond the safe circle of familiarity that surrounded the Carità. Ariadne's strokes never faltered, though, and Arthur trusted that she knew where she was going.
Even this far from San Marco square, the streets were filled with Venetians and visitors in their multicoloured masks, drinking and celebrating. A man dressed as a skeleton sat on a bridge with his feet hanging out over the water and laughed as they passed underneath him, his voice echoing hollowly behind them.
Soon, though, the city began to slip away, the buildings thinning out until they turned a final corner and were paddling out through open lagoon. The sun was lost behind the clouds overhead, and the wind was cold and made the waves choppy.
The Island of the Dead lay like a bobbing corpse on the water, a long, flat strip of land spotted with only a few sparse trees and the tombs that gave the island its name. As they drifted closer, Arthur understood Ariadne's reluctance to come here; it seemed like a place that nothing living would want to visit.
He hopped out as they pulled in beside the wharf and caught the rope Ariadne threw to him, wrapping it securely around one of the wharf's water-drenched and half-rotting posts. Ariadne climbed out after him with a far more serious expression than Arthur had seen on her before.
"This way," she said and led him out into the cemetery.
The ground underneath their feet was uneven, which made the walking difficult, though Ariadne stalked ahead with the determination of someone who wanted to leave as soon as possible. The wind was growing even stronger, whipping through Arthur's hair and making the tree branches rattle in a way that made him think of the bones in the flooded coffins beneath their feet, rising and falling on the tide. A raven called overhead, loud enough in the silence that it startled Arthur into looking up.
Ariadne must have looked as well because when Arthur looked back down she was smirking at him. "They're the only thing that lives here," she said, nudging her chin up just enough to indicate the birds. "They say the souls of the dead come back as ravens to protect their bodies from people who would do them harm."
"That's ridiculous," Arthur said, not because he thought a soul couldn't come back but because coming back as a bird seemed like a mostly useless thing to do.
"Like most good stories," Ariadne agreed.
They were nearly at the centre of the island when Ariadne drew to a halt and pointed ahead at one of the tombs. It was a short stone building, not quite as tall as Arthur, with a heavy stone door and topped by a simple cornice. The most delicate work was on the stone over the doorway where Arthur's nightingale was carved and, below it, the poem – only not quite as Arthur remembered it.
"The nightingale takes wing, her secret song to sing," Ariadne read out loud. "Await the midnight song, the truth will come ere long."
Arthur stared hard at the carved bird, as if expecting it to come alive and reveal its secrets if he glared at it hard and long enough. "It's the story of the duke's violin," he said finally, slowly, as the realization came to him. "This is her grave. The duke's wife."
Ariadne made a noise, a clucking of her tongue against the back of her teeth, and cast him a sidelong, speculative look.
"What?" Arthur asked.
"You're about the right age," Ariadne said, "and you have that ring, and you've come to Venice at just the right time for the duke's visit."
Arthur frowned. "That doesn't make sense," he said. "I'm not here because of that. I'm here because I played a violin in a marketplace once."
"Don't you believe in fate at all?" Ariadne asked in a tone that didn't make it clear whether she did or didn't herself.
"No," Arthur said stubbornly. It was better than thinking too hard about that thing inside him that called out to the idea, as though it was all he needed to fill in a bit of himself that had been left blank for too long.
Ariadne looked at him with a sharpness that said she didn't entirely believe him. Arthur went back to looking at the tomb and pretended he didn't notice.
Rain was beginning to spit down on them as they made their way back to the gondola. The boat itself was straining at its rope, banging against the wharf, as the waves pulled it out into the lagoon and then pushed it back in. They were both soaked from the rain and the waves washing over the gondola's sides by the time they got the boat unmoored and pushed away from the island. Ariadne had to pole with all her strength, putting the whole weight of her tiny frame into each push.
It seemed to take ages to cross the expanse of open water. Once they were back into the canals, the buildings sheltered them some from the wind and the water was stiller. Arthur got uneasily to his feet, balancing precariously on the gondola's bottom, and placed a hand on Ariadne's pole, silently offering to take a turn. She let go gratefully and huddled down on the vacated seat, arms wrapped around herself, teeth chattering as she gave directions back to the Carità.
Maybe it was only Arthur's gloomy frame of mind, from the storm and the cemetery and the unanswered questions hounding him, but there was something sinister about the streets they passed through that hadn't been there when Ariadne had paddled them through earlier. He kept catching movement out of the corner of his eye on the balconies above. It felt like someone was watching them.
The storm was beginning to ebb away again by the time Arthur pushed them awkwardly toward the edge of the canal so that he could climb out. He handed Ariadne her pole back, pushed the dripping ends of his hair back out of his face, and braced both hands on the wall to hoist himself out. But before he could, Ariadne reached out and grabbed his wrist. He looked back toward her, expecting something else about fate or about what they'd found on the island, but all she said was:
"Meet me here again, and I'll take you to get your violin."
And Arthur stared at her a little longer than he would've under ordinary circumstances before saying, "Thank you."
It was late enough that everyone was already deep into their different rehearsals, fine-tuning and perfecting their pieces for the grand concert in only a few days' time, which meant that Arthur's absence had no doubt been noticed already but which also gave him plenty of time to change and dry off before he was expected in Eames's rooms for their afternoon practice.
He kept those first two goals – drying and changing – firmly fixed in his mind because it left him less time to spend worrying over the meaning of his ring or the broken violin or the fact that he hadn't been alone with Eames since the strange moment the other morning. He felt like if he started thinking about any one of those things, he'd never be able to force himself to stop, so he did what he always did in those sorts of moments and focused on the details within his control. He rubbed his skin down until it was pink and only smelled faintly like brackish water. He couldn't dry his hair entirely, but he could comb it back neatly off his face. He could choose his clothes carefully and press the creases out with his thumbs.
Once he was satisfied, he picked up his violin and made his way, with only the slightest dragging of feet, to Eames's rooms. He was surprised to find Eames not only there already but dripping water all over the floor as if he too had only just gotten in from the rain. He was searching about, looking for something to dry off on in the chaos of his room no doubt, and leaving wet, barefoot footprints on the floor as he did.
Arthur, carefully, cleared his throat, and Eames came to an immediate stop, turning to stare at him with a surprised, startled expression, like he'd just been caught doing something he shouldn't be.
"Arthur," he said. "This is a surprise." Arthur lifted his violin case up to an unmissable height and just stared at Eames, one eyebrow slightly raised, until sudden realization washed over Eames's face and he bopped his forehead with his fist. "I'm sorry. I completely forgot." He waved his hands toward Arthur's habitual chair, which was now kept clear specifically for him, and began searching around again, mumbling, "Just let me..."
Arthur sat and placed his violin down near his feet, watching as Eames gave up on finding a towel and instead opted to dry his hair off on the cleanest shirt he could find. The shirt he was wearing still hung heavily with water, clinging to his arms and stomach in a way that Arthur found he couldn't quite look away from.
"What I love most about carnival," Eames was saying, voice muffled by his shirt, and Arthur realized he'd only half listening anyway, "is that it's the one time of year when the rich men condescend to gamble with the rest of us."
"Eames," Arthur said and then, like so many times before, fell silent as he realized that he had no satisfactory way to say what he was thinking.
Eames, it seemed, had noticed this habit too because he stopped rubbing his head long enough to give Arthur a considering look and say, "Someday you're going to tell me what you're thinking instead of leaving me to guess, and that will be an interesting day."
"You need someone to make you work for it," Arthur replied immediately, but he felt strangely disconnected from the words, as though someone else was saying them. A bead of rain water ran down Eames's neck, and Arthur tracked it with his eyes until Eames reached up, wiped it away with the flat of his palm, and laughed.
"I believe you're constitutionally incapable of anything else," Eames said and then, in one smooth move, tugged his shirt over his head, dropping it and the one he'd been using to dry off with onto the floor. Arthur's mouth went ominously dry, and all the things he'd been considering telling Eames -– about the trip out to the island, about the violin -– fell off his tongue. Instead, he had to grasp quickly for something to say to avoid the short tumble into awkward silence.
"If you ever stopped being irresponsible, maybe we'd find out. But that's not likely to happen."
Eames had turned away to find something new to wear, his back to Arthur, but this made him pause and glance over his shoulder, something glittering dangerously in his eyes. "Irresponsible?"
It was impulse that had made Arthur say it, but that didn't make it untrue and now that it was hanging out there in the air between them, it wasn't as though he could take it back. He stood, uncomfortable with Eames staring down at him like that.
"Yes," he said, stepping out and around his violin, "you're irresponsible. You'll do anything to keep this position except do your actual job. You'd rather pin all our hopes on some make-believe story instead."
Eames's jaw tensed and then relaxed, and he turned, crossing the rest of the floor between him until they were nearly nose to nose and Arthur could smell the dark muddy scent of the canal and bore oil and ink on him, and he felt dizzy with it.
"And what if I have, hm?" Eames asked, voice low and smooth as always and almost inflectionless. "You're nearly a full-grown man. You'll be leaving here again before long. So what, precisely, does it matter to you, Arthur?"
There were a hundred answers at Arthur's fingertips, from the selfish -– that he wanted Eames here to teach him until the day he was finally forced to leave -– to the less selfish -– that Eames understood music in a way so far beyond the reach of most people that Arthur couldn't stand the idea of that gift being squandered. But the honest truth was something else, something off to one side, which Arthur had been aware of for months but was still trying not to name. It was bubbling up in his chest now anyway, determined and unstoppable, so Arthur did the only thing he could think of to shut himself up, grabbing hungrily at the thick slope of Eames's neck and pressing his mouth against Eames's.
It was, retrospectively, not Arthur's most effective decision. He had plenty of time to decide this in those first few moments when Eames's mouth was soft but slack beneath his, his muscles rigid under Arthur's hands. And if a moment could fermata, this one did, drawing out far longer than it was meant to be as Arthur stood stubbornly still until the back of his neck felt hot with embarrassment.
With all the dignity he could manage, Arthur stepped back, and Eames blinked at him, the blacks of his eyes large and dark.
"Do what you want," Arthur said stiffly and then he spun, scooping up his violin, and headed for the door.
"Arthur, wait," Eames said behind him, but Arthur wouldn't have known how to stop himself even if he'd wanted to hear what Eames had to say.
The rest of the day was one of the worst that Arthur could remember, certainly the most miserable since he'd come to Venice. Unwilling to suffer through an awkward conversation or, even worse, pitying, sympathetic looks, he avoided Eames, and he avoided Dominick and Mallorie too because they'd both proved too good at guessing when something was wrong.
That left him few places to hide and so Arthur spent most of the day in the dormitory for the youngest children. Some of them were barely older than babies; most of them had been left here just like Arthur had been left at the monastery. The Carità was the only home they'd ever known, and they stared at Arthur with large eyes like he was some intimidating and magical being descended to walk among them. But they also, as a result, left him completely alone, which was exactly what Arthur wanted.
Realistically, he knew there was a limit to how long he could hide away from everyone and that the longer he did so, the more he made it seem like there was something to hide away from. His embarrassment, left alone, would only grow but even knowing that, and even knowing what a terrible idea it had been to kiss Eames, he couldn't quite make himself regret having done it, if only for that first moment when the possibility that Eames would kiss him back had existed, like a candlewick trying to take light.
Around midday, Yusuf discovered him when he came to check on one of the children, who had developed a fever after being caught out in the rain. He didn't say anything to Arthur, only raised an eyebrow in curiosity but when no one came looking for him afterward, Arthur decided that Yusuf, for his own reasons, must have decided to keep Arthur's secret a secret.
Arthur was relieved when the sun finally set, and the sound of fireworks popped in the distance, and Arthur could creep back to his own room and close himself in. Exhaustion, for once, overcame anxiety, and he sank into a deep and, thankfully, mostly dreamless sleep.
"It doesn't make sense," Ariadne said by way of greeting as Arthur climbed into her gondola early on the fourth day of carnival.
Arthur, still rubbing crust out of the corners of his eyes, made a tired but vaguely inquisitive noise.
"If you don't believe in miracles enough to consider the possibility that you might be the duke's missing heir, you can't honestly believe that playing the violin at midnight will be magical enough to suddenly solve the mystery." She shot a look back at him, as if daring him to deny this. When Arthur only shrugged, she continued, "And if you don't believe any of that, I don't understand why you're going to all this trouble."
Before his fight with Eames, before he kissed Eames, Arthur had plenty of reasons, laid out in straight lines in his head. It would be a chance to show the richest lords and ladies of Venice, along with the governors of the Carità, just how brilliant Eames's students were. It would be a chance to impress someone as rich and powerful as the duke of Cremona, who had heard the best violinist from all over Europe play for him.
Now, though, he wasn't even sure he wanted to help Eames save his job anymore and was finding, to his endless irritation, that it was perfectly possible to be furious with someone and still want to kiss them.
So he shrugged again and said, "I broke it. It's my responsibility."
Ariadne raised her eyebrows, as if somehow she suspected that wasn't all there was to the story. "Yes," she said, "clearly this is all just a question of responsibility."
"You pry," Arthur said. "A lot," and Ariadne laughed, amused and not at all offended. She'd probably heard it before, maybe more than once, but she didn't pick at him further after that. She seemed to have perfected that: only pushing a little ways a time so that you might, if you weren't cautious, not even notice until it was too late and she'd already figured you out.
Arthur shut his eyes and rested his head against his arm, spread out along the edge of the gondola. The late winter storms of the past two days had finally cleared, and the sun was warm and soothing.
As they were pulling around the corner that led along the edge of the square and down to the piazzetta, though, a shout cut through the chatter of the early morning market crowd.
"That man's a thief! Stop him!"
Arthur opened his eyes just as Ariadne dug her pole into the soft canal bottom, bringing them mostly to a stop, and they both looked over into the crowd. At first, it wasn't obvious where the shout was coming from but then a sprinting figure dressed all in black, with a black mask and a hood pulled up over his head, came barrelling through, pushing bystanders out of the way as he made for the far side of the square.
Theft wasn't such a strange thing in Venice, even if it was usually quieter and less noticeable: a pocket picked in a crowd, a purse taken at knifepoint in a back alley. Arthur was about to shut his eyes again, dismissing it as both none of his business and not very interesting, when he caught sight of the person giving chase.
It was Saito's young apprentice, even from this distance clearly red in the face and breathing hard and, most importantly from Arthur's perspective, falling behind. A chill of terror ran over him.
"Ariadne," Arthur said, urgent and scrambling to his knees, "let me out!"
"What?" Ariadne asked, blinking at him, but she didn't need to be told twice. The gondola pushed forward and then swung about, riding up close enough to the canal wall that Arthur could pounce from his crouch in the gondola to land in mid-stride in the square.
"I'll pull around the other side!" Ariadne shouted after him.
Arthur overtook Tadashi without much effort, but the man in black was faster and had a decent head-start. The people around them scrambled to get out of their way, tripping over themselves. Arthur leapt over legs, ducked under flailing arms, and kept his eyes fixed on the back in front of him. Twice, he seemed to come close enough to reach out and touch the edge of the man's hood before he pulled away again.
The man in black reached the canal first and jumped. For a moment, Arthur expected a splash but then he drew up close enough to see that the man hadn't just leapt into the water; he'd leapt into one of the docked gondolas along the edge and was now standing, clearly unpractised and unsteady, and pushing himself away and into the network of canals. Arthur cast around for a boat of his own, but the other gondolas moored below him were either pole-less or tied with complex knots that would take far too long to untangle.
He nearly swore, nearly spun about to hit the wall of the nearest building with his fist, but then suddenly, Ariadne was there, sweeping over the water with all the grace of someone who pushed and weaved her way up and down these canals from morning to night every day.
"Get him!" Arthur called after her. There was no way to know whether she heard or not; she didn't even pause and then her gondola slipped under a bridge, around a corner, and out of sight, and all Arthur could do was wait.
Tadashi caught up not long after and immediately folded in half over his knees, breathing in big puffs and gasps. Arthur let him catch his breath. If he hadn't spent his childhood running through gardens and hauling jugs of wine for the brothers and instead sat repairing instruments all day, he might be breathing hard too, after all.
"He came out of nowhere," Tadashi said finally, when he could. "I was only just opening up, and he came out of nowhere." His eyes were wide and apologetic. "He took your violin. The Stradivarius."
"I had a feeling," Arthur replied flatly.
Tadashi groaned and dropped down to a squat, holding his head in his hands. "Master Saito is never going to forgive me."
If Arthur believed in things like magic at all, he might think that some sort of curse had been placed on the violin, and this was just it spreading misfortune to everyone that it came near. He looked up at the sky and sighed heavily.
"Well," he said, partly to Tadashi but mostly to himself, "at least this means I don't owe Saito any favours."
It took a long time for Ariadne to reappear, and Arthur knew even before she'd drawn near enough to say anything that she hadn't caught him. There was a defeated, angry set to her shoulders.
"He jumped out at a bridge, and I lost him," she said when she did pull up. "I'm sorry, Arthur."
"It's all right," Arthur said, although it wasn't really. But Ariadne was looking at him as though she expected him to start screaming any moment, and it wasn't her fault, no matter what direction you looked at it from, so the lie felt justified.
The students were all gathering in the hall to break fast when Ariadne dropped Arthur in front of the school. They were louder than usual, maybe even slightly higher in pitch, as excitement over the last days of carnival and the great concert began to climb. Arthur's stomach gurgled plaintively at the smell of porridge and all the skipped meals of the past few days catching up with him. He ignored it and jogged up the stairs.
His plan was to disappear into his room and sit and plan out how to tell Eames without being dragged into a conversation he didn't want to have. But he didn't even make it as far as his room before a voice ahead of him said, "Arthur?"
Dominick was poking his head out into the hallway from his own room, hair a mess as though he'd only just woken up.
"Morning," Arthur said, trying to conceal his reluctance to stop.
"You were up early again," Dominick replied. He scratched at the back of his head and attempted to pat down his hair.
"I had an errand to do."
Dominick raised both his eyebrows sceptically. "With your gondolier?"
Arthur's flush was immediate, if only because he'd never considered how it might look from the outside. "It's not what it looks like," he said.
"It's all right if it is," said Dominick, and the look he gave Arthur was understanding and sympathetic, as though being blatantly and unreservedly in love with Mallorie qualified him as an expert on all things romantic. Or, more to the point, as though he thought that poor provincial Arthur might need the reassurance.
"I know," said Arthur, trying not to bristle too badly and mostly failing, "but it isn't. She's trying to help me save Eames's job."
Dominick's mouth turned down in a startled frown, and he stepped out of his room, arms crossed over his chest. He'd obviously been trying on the outfits that had been sewn for them for the grand concert. His shirt was fine, black silk with flared sleeves. It wouldn't do for the lot of them to show up looking like penniless orphans before the richest of the Venetian nobility, even when that was what they were.
"What are you talking about?" Dominick asked and with an internal sigh, Arthur told the story, starting from the night he'd followed Eames to the meeting of the governors and on to the morning Eames had first presented the duke's violin. Dominick was thoughtfully silent for a moment after and then said, "He hasn't said anything to the rest of us."
"He's waiting for the concert to fix everything. Magically." The sarcasm in his own voice made Arthur wince; even if the violin could never have saved everything through magic, it certainly couldn't save anything now that it was missing.
One corner of Dominick's mouth twitched, softening his frown momentarily. "And you aren't prepared to entertain the idea of magic happening, even during carnival."
"And you are?"
"Stranger things happen," Dominick said with a shrug. "I'm willing to accept that sometimes there's more to the things that happen around us and the way they happen than we see on the surface."
Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose. He could feel the bare beginnings of a headache, like a storm gathering right between his eyes. "I thought I could fix it fast enough that no one would even need to know that anything was wrong. Instead, I've made things worse."
Dominick narrowed his eyes, perhaps not understanding what Arthur meant or how he could've made things worse, but Arthur found that he couldn't bring himself to tell that part of the story. It was wedged tightly somewhere inside.
"It's not over until it's over," Dominick said and then stepped forward and clapped his hand on Arthur's shoulder, ducking his head down the few inches of height difference between them to look Arthur straight in the eye. "We'll have the governors trapped here for an entire evening. That's more than enough time to convince them to keep Eames on."
It might have worked once. Although young and an orphan, without an ounce of power to his name, Dominick had regularly talked the cooks into second helpings and Eames into ending practice early during the warm summer days. At the Christmas mass, he had spent half the night talking like an equal with the duke of Olemberg, who had travelled all the way from Denmark to hear the Carità's orchestra play. It was not quite true that Dominick could talk anyone into anything, but he had a gift for people that Arthur knew he was sorely lacking himself.
But now, with the violin stolen, Eames would inevitably be blamed, and even Dominick's skill with words couldn't prevent that. Arthur pressed his lips together in a tired, worried frown and let Dominick take his silence for grudging assent.
His stomach felt unsettled all through afternoon practice. Arthur had never been one for nerves really, not since his first day at the school, and so the feeling was doubly strange, a tight, churning queasiness deep in the pit of his stomach.
When Yusuf showed up to conduct the orchestra practice, it was a mixed blessing. It was certainly easier to play, looking up at Yusuf's calm face and following the steady movements of his hands as he counted them through the beats of their repertoire than it would have been with Eames, but it sent Arthur's mind of scrambling to explain his absence. Had he finally discovered the violin was missing? Or, in his hurry to avoid Eames, had Arthur somehow missed that Eames was avoiding him as well?
It set the other students to muttering, though, and when Yusuf had them break so that he could take the timpanis through some of the trickier rhythms, the other sections all clustered together to trade theories on their missing concert master.
"He's been going missing all the time," Michelletta opined, in a low whisper.
"Maybe he's found a rich duchess to make a kept man out of him," laughed Valente and then clapped a hand over his mouth when he realized his voice had been a little overloud.
Mallorie snorted softly. "Maybe he finally gambled away all his clothing and didn't have anything left to wear to practice."
Her tone was joking but to Arthur's ear, it sounded like the likeliest of the theories so far.
"Listen," said Dominick from his spot behind Arthur and unlike the others, he didn't sound exasperated or amused. Maybe that was what made the others fall attentively silent the way they did. "After practice, we'll meet in the choral room. The real reason isn't very funny."
The others looked chastened by that, almost sombre, as they hurried back to their seats. Mallorie paused to narrow her eyes first at Dominick and then – as if guided by a mysterious sixth sense – at Arthur too before she turned away as well and returned to the woodwind side of the room.
Yusuf retook his place at the front of the room and smoothed out his sheet music with his palm. "Let's begin again," he said. "With real pianissimo this time, timpanis, please."
Later, as they were clearing up, Arthur could see that Dominick's instructions had been passed around to the rest of the orchestra as well. Everyone was moving much more slowly than usual, taking time to straighten their pages and polish their keys. Arthur, who was neater and thus usually slower than all the others combined, managed to finish first and was ready to turn around and leave when Dominick caught his eye.
"Are you coming?" he asked, which made Arthur pause with the sudden intense desire to say yes and avoid owning up to his mistake just a little bit longer.
"No," he made himself say eventually, picking up his violin. "I need to talk to Eames."
Dominick nodded. "Good luck."
"You too," Arthur said.
The walk to Eames's wing felt longer than it ever had been before, even though Arthur tried to tell himself that the distance was all in his mind. It still stretched out before him in a seemingly endless procession of footsteps. The warmth of the early morning had lingered and deepened, a welcome sign that spring would be coming soon. Arthur's shoes clacked against the stone floor, kicking up dust that churned in visible streams through the yellow-orange light coming in the open windows.
If this were a few months ago, Arthur would be sitting in the sunlight with Dominick and Mallorie, worrying about nothing except the newest piece to learn. He'd have liked nothing better than to turn time back to those days at that moment.
When he found Eames, he was sitting by the window in his room, legs stretched out, feet resting on the top of his writing desk, staring out at the late afternoon like he was also thinking of better times. The fingers of one hand curled around his chin, right below his lower lip, while the others were occupied spinning a coin round and round between them.
He looked up when Arthur kicked the door shut and dropped his feet to the floor, hands following soon after to tug his shirt into lying flat over his stomach.
"You're looking especially determined today," he said in an odd sort of voice, not weary exactly but still stripped of something Arthur was used to hearing there. "What have I done now?"
Arthur knew the curl of irritation in his stomach well, his one lifelong friend, but he refused to let it guide him now. "We need to talk."
Eames unfolded himself from his chair and crossed with a casualness that seemed forced. His shoulders were held back, squared, as if he was preparing himself for a fight. But instead of lashing out, he simply raised an eyebrow and said, "Suddenly?"
"Yes," Arthur said.
Eames's eyebrow lifted just that little bit higher. "Really," he said. "Because I'd been under the impression you were avoiding me."
It was only natural, honestly, that Eames would make this difficult when it seemed like Eames had been making Arthur's life difficult from the moment they'd first met. Because he was loud, like Saito had said all those months ago, and disorganized and irresponsible and rude but also unbearably brilliant in a way that Arthur could neither deny nor segment away in his chest in the hopes the recognition of it would wither down to nothing, ignored. He'd learned as much over the last few months.
"I'm not here to talk about that," he said stubbornly and then ignored Eames's attempt to interject with a gruff "Arthur" to add, "I'd appreciate it if you could leave aside your wounded pride for a moment."
Eames's mouth twisted into a sour expression. "This isn't about my wounded pride."
"That's what you're making it about," countered Arthur. That, at least, seemed to be enough to make Eames fall silent, his expression still sour at first and then thoughtful and then, slowly, something else entirely, caught between amused and rueful.
"You drive me mad, did you know?" he said. It sounded rhetorical and sure enough, Eames did not wait for a response, lifting his shoulders in a shrug. "Of course not. You're far too busy running around Venice, trying to carry everything on your own shoulders to notice."
This sounded entirely too much like Eames knew something, and Arthur froze uncertainly, his features stiffening into a frown like some kind of perturbed rigor mortis. Eames only shook his head and drew closer.
"And now I've done something to make you frown at me again," he said and then, to Arthur's great surprise, Eames reached out slowly and pressed his thumb to the spot between Arthur's eyebrows, as if it contained all the secrets to unlocking Arthur's frown. It made Arthur go a bit cross-eyed, between trying to frown at Eames and keep track of his thumb.
"Eames," Arthur said.
"You kissed me," Eames said.
Just hearing it said out loud made Arthur's skin flush uncomfortably, made a shiver run down his arms and legs. "I don't want to talk about that," he said again.
The corner of Eames's mouth twitched, just a bit, a small enough movement that Arthur might not have seen it if they hadn't been standing so close together. Eames lifted his thumb away and dropped it down to take hold of Arthur's chin instead, and Arthur stubbornly refused to let his surprise show in anything more than a sharp intake of breath.
"I can live with that," Eames agreed and then leaned in swiftly to kiss him.
Arthur felt the deep-set need to protest almost immediately, an instinct difficult to ignore after a lifetime of wanting to protest but holding his tongue because it was not his place to question what the brothers in the monastery chose to do. He was only a boy they'd taken in, not even a real novice. He'd never felt the same need to keep his thoughts to himself with Eames, for all that he was supposed to be Arthur's teacher and in retrospect, maybe that meant something in itself.
And then Eames's hands threaded through his hair, and Arthur decided that this time, he could let it go. He gripped Eames's shirt in both hands and kissed back with furious, impatient kisses, each greedier than the last. Eames's mouth was warm and soft now in all the ways that Arthur had tried not to think it could be, in all the ways it hadn't been during that first awful, surprised kiss, and Eames didn't try to slow him down, kissing back with teeth and shallow brushes of his tongue, his hands dropping down to the small of Arthur's back to press him close.
By the time Eames's hands slipped under his shirt, running his palms up along Arthur's spine to his shoulder blades, Arthur could tell that his legs were barely supporting his own weight and that he was gripping onto Eames's shirt and pressing against him with all his strength, as if that was the way to keep himself from rubbing up against the full length of him.
Eames managed to disentangle their mouths for long enough to press a kiss against Arthur's jaw, right under his ear, and whisper, "I'm going to undress you now." It was only because of the promise of getting his skin against Eames's that Arthur let himself be detached for long enough that their combined tugging could get his shirt over his head.
He'd been shirtless in front of other men before, obviously, but not in front of anyone who'd looked at him with the heavy, lazy hunger written on Eames's face right then. His fingers reached out to hook around Arthur's chain, to finger his ring curiously, before pushing them both away so that he could press kisses over Arthur's collarbones instead.
"You've never done this before, have you?" Eames asked in between.
"No," Arthur was forced to admit and then he felt a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth as he added, "But you know how fast I learn."
It didn't take much effort to push Eames back towards his bedroom, once Arthur put his mind to it, or much effort to tumble them both onto Eames's narrow, unmade bed. Eames seemed reluctant now to take his hands off Arthur's hips, to take his mouth away from Arthur's skin, even as Arthur clawed at his back to try and pull his shirt off as well.
"I'd write music about you if I thought you'd let me," Eames murmured once, hushed, into the corner of Arthur's mouth.
"You're right. You would've made a terrible priest," Arthur replied, in a voice that sounded barely like his own, heart hammering in his chest, and Eames laughed and kissed him again.
Arthur thought he was about to burst or squirm out of his own skin by the time Eames pushed him back against the pillows. His cock was hard and leaking when Eames roughly tugged his trousers off and then bent to reverently nose at his hipbones until Arthur gripped his hair and grunted in sheer frustration. Eames looked up, grinning in delight and looking many years younger than he had for the last few months, and then pushed Arthur onto his side and stretched out beside him.
There was a momentary pause, and the sound of rustling and then Eames's arm wrapped around Arthur's middle and pulled him back so they were flush back-to-chest, Eames's cock pressing hot and insistent into the curve of Arthur's thigh. Eames reached down to pull Arthur's legs apart just long enough to slip his cock between.
"Tightly, Arthur," Eames instructed into his hairline and so Arthur pressed his thighs together as tightly as he could and grinned in satisfaction at the ragged moan it rung out of Eames. "Perfect," Eames hissed, beginning to rock back and forth between Arthur's thighs. "You're perfect."
Exaggeration, Arthur thought, or flattery but then Eames's hand came up, slick with oil or something else that made it gleam in the late sunlight, and wrapped around the base of Arthur's own cock. And then Arthur thought, with a gasp that quickly turned into something guttural and unnameable, maybe perfect was exactly right.
They moved together like that, awkwardly and then steadily, sweat collecting between them, Arthur's breath loud in his ears, louder than anything but the wet noise of Eames's hand moving up and down and the occasional half-mumbled encouragement. Arthur barely noticed the moment that he groped back, finding Eames hip and digging his nails in, too caught up in the heat and the tempo and the pressure building in his gut. It was only after he'd come, spilling over Eames's hand with a half-choked noise, that he realized he'd been saying Eames's name over and over for longer than he knew.
Eames came not long after, well before Arthur had caught his breath, and strangely for Eames, he didn't say anything immediately or grin down at Arthur. He buried his face in Arthur's neck instead, and they lay quietly together. It was strangely companionable, really, as though, for the first time, there was nothing else hanging in the air between them, no tension, nothing unsaid. Even if Arthur knew the feeling wasn't real, or wasn't accurate at least, it was nice and so he shut his eyes and let himself enjoy it.
Eventually, Eames shifted and retrieved his discarded shirt, using it to wipe both of them off. He hummed as he did, a beautiful but simple melody Arthur didn't know, something peaceful and fragile, which left Arthur wondering if he was making it up on the spot.
"I hope," Arthur said, rolling onto his back and looking up at Eames with what he knew was likely naked admiration on his face, "that that's not a habit with you."
He didn't mean it, wouldn't have let what just happened happen if he had, but it was worth it for the way that Eames looked at him with an expression that was startled at first before it melted into something warm and genuine.
"Oh, no, darling," he said, "though I'd like to make it one."
Arthur woke on the morning of the concert feeling incongruously good. There was a warmth in his muscles and a sense of a satisfaction at the back of his mind that had nothing to do with the sunlight coming in through the window or the sound of a smooth alto singing voice drifting up from one of the floors below as one of the other boys warmed up for the day. It was like Arthur had been a string on a violin, pulled progressively tighter and tighter by each twist of the peg. Yesterday, with Eames, he had finally snapped. While snapping was not a good thing generally speaking, with it, all the tension had gone as well.
For a moment, Arthur simply lay there, feeling all right with the world and his place in it. But the moment couldn't last, and worries began to build up in his mind again until, by the time he rolled himself out of bed, his shoulders felt heavy again with his pessimistic prognostication for what the day was going to bring.
Neither Dominick nor Mallorie were at breakfast when Arthur finally trudged down. He took a seat at the end of one of the long tables, as far from any other students as he could manage, and picked at a plate of fruit and cheese, trying to tune out the nervous, excited buzz of conversation all around. The others were all speculating as to how the night would go, and Arthur sincerely doubted it would turn out the way any of them anticipated.
He was concentrating so hard on not paying attention to anyone else that he nearly jumped when Mallorie slipped onto the bench beside him. Reflexively, Arthur glanced around for Dominick too, but there was no sign of him.
"Dominick explained about the trouble with Eames," she said in a low voice so they couldn't be overheard, smiling as she plucked food off his plate so that anyone looking would think that they were just gossiping about the day to come as well. "You should have told us sooner."
"He said he had a plan," Arthur muttered back, only a bit defensive. "Just not a very good one, apparently."
Mallorie pressed her lips together in a way that made it plain she had doubts about all of their plan-making skills and then bit into a grape. Arthur sighed.
"What else did Dominick say?"
"That our best hope now is to take advantage of the concert to talk to the governors about what a good teacher Eames is." Her eyes flickered briefly to the side, as if checking to make sure they hadn't collected any eavesdroppers. "And then if they do not want to listen, we can always threaten not to play ever again unless they keep him on as concert master."
Arthur's eyebrows jumped up in surprise. "Really?"
"Of course," Mallorie said, narrowing her eyes into a fierce stare. "We all agreed. Let's see what good a school for musically-talented orphans does them if none of us will agree to play for them."
It was strange but typical that Eames should inspire this sort of loyalty without ever having gone out of his way to do much to earn it. Despite himself, Arthur smiled and propped his elbow up on the table so he could rub his fingers over his forehead. Mallorie dropped her chin down on his shoulder.
"You try to take on too much on your own," she said.
"You're not the first person to say that," he replied, glancing sideways at her. She widened her eyes, as if to say There you go, then.
"We're family now, Arthur," she said instead, catching his hand and pressing it in between her two palms. Her hands were warm and dry, and Arthur wondered for a moment if it would've been easier to fall in love with her – if that even was what his feelings about Eames were – or whether it would've just been a different sort of difficult. "No matter what happens. We would take care of you just like we'll take care of Eames, if you would give us the chance."
Arthur turned his head finally and met her gaze head on. "Next time I'm in trouble, I'll tell you," he said.
She stared back levelly for a long time, trying to pick out his level of honesty just from his face. Since it was Mallorie, Arthur was almost willing to bet she could. Finally, satisfied, she sat back, letting go of his arm, and gave a short nod of her head. "Good," she said and hooked her fingers on the edge of his plate to steal the rest of his breakfast.
Arthur shook his head indulgently and let her. Even though he knew it wasn't likely to make her any less angry when she found out about the trouble he was still in.
By the time night rolled around, the whole of the Carità seemed to have exploded into a fury of activity and energy. The great hall had been cleared and swept and scrubbed until the stones almost gleamed. Thick tapestries in red and gold had been hung on the walls, and the seats and music stands had been set out on a raised platform at one end of the hall, waiting for the hour of the concert to arrive.
Even the students had been transformed, in their own way. Bathed and dressed in their best clothes, they wouldn't pass for equals to the lords and ladies already sailing up the canal in their barges, swaying spots of lantern-light up and down the canal, but they would at least not stand out too terribly. The nervous energy of earlier in the day had given way to a quieter, heavier worry that settled all around the clusters of students.
Some, like Dominick, liked to stalk off on their own to hum to themselves and focus. Others, like Mallorie, preferred to direct their worry elsewhere. She sat with one of the youngest boys who would be playing for an audience outside the Carità for the first time that night and who looked pale and sick at the thought of it.
Usually, Arthur was like Dominick. He liked to take himself away from the others and sit and think about what he was about to play. But tonight, the concert itself was almost the last thing on his mind, and he found himself standing in one of the doorways to the great hall, instead, watching as the guests arrived.
They weren't all members of the nobility, that was obvious. Plenty were average Venetians, taking advantage of the last night of carnival to mingle with the rich. Some of the younger ones had clearly come to flirt, from the way they skulked about and peered down the corridors, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the girls. But even with their masks on, it was easy enough to tell the nobles apart, the great ladies dripping with jewels and the men in the gold-embroidered jackets. Even the magic anonymity of carnival had limits.
"Nervous?" asked a voice nearby, so suddenly and unexpectedly that Arthur nearly flinched with surprise. The figure next to him was wearing an unfamiliar mask, so it took him a moment to realize that it was Ariadne.
"What are you doing here?" Arthur hissed.
She shrugged her shoulders. "I have to see what happens," she said, as though it was explanation enough. Under the weight of Arthur's frown, she added, "No sign of the violin?"
"No," Arthur said, trying to sound neither wistful nor frustrated. He had, he hoped, reached a place of inner calm about it. The violin was gone and with it, whatever miracles or magic it might have worked. He had accepted that and knew what he had to do as a result.
Ariadne, though, looked at him with curiosity written clearly in her eyes, even if the mask obscured much of the rest of her face. "What are you going to do?"
"Take the blame," Arthur said stubbornly, looking away and out at the crowd when Ariadne's eyes started to widen at him in sharp alarm. "I'll tell the duke what happened and make sure he knows it was my fault."
She'd already been standing near enough that they could keep their voices low but now Ariadne pressed in closer and tugged her mask down to hang loosely from her neck. Her expression was genuinely concerned. "You can't," she said.
"I have to," Arthur snapped, suggesting that perhaps his inner calm was still a work in progress. He bit the inside of his lip and tried again. "If I don't take the blame, someone who doesn't deserve it will. It's my responsibility. And it's what I should've done in the first place."
Ariadne pressed her lips together and looked at him as though she wanted to argue but couldn't find a place to begin. A tall woman in a rich, red gown and a mask shaped like a cat drew up beside them to admire one of the tapestries on the wall. This seemed to decide something for Ariadne who ducked past Arthur, grabbing his wrist to drag him back through the doorway behind her.
"It isn't the only option," she said in an earnest whisper and then she reached out and poked him in the chest, right where the ring rumpled the line of his shirt. "If the duke finds his heir, I don't think it will matter to him how it happened."
Arthur shut his eyes and tried not to grimace. "It doesn't mean anything," he said. Not anything beyond the brief spark of interest in Eames's eyes and the knowledge that he'd belonged somewhere once, at least. He wasn't sure he'd want to be the heir to the duke of Cremona anyway, even if there was some logic to Ariadne's story. At this point, it would still mean leaving the Carità.
"But Arthur," Ariadne began, but she got no further before a hush went through the crowd of guests.
Subtle as it was at first, Ariadne didn't seem to notice, but Arthur was as used to listening for silences as he was to listening for notes, and the change on his face must stopped her. He stepped up to the door once more, stared out, and felt, rather than heard, the other students begin to cluster around him, drawn by the same moment of quiet.
Thirty men in thirty matching uniforms of red and white and thirty plain gold masks were lining up in the entrance to the hall. They each carried a lit candelabrum, which cast a soft yellow, wavering glow over the room. When they were lined up, arranged in two even rows, the duke entered.
He seemed older than Arthur had imagined, his back was slightly stooped, his neatly-combed hair white. Like Arthur and the other students, he was dressed in black but on him, it seemed sombre, like mourning. His mask was odd: white as egg shells and square with a sharp chin that stuck out. It covered his entire face, eyes and nose and mouth, concealing his expression from view. But his eyes clearly wandered. Searching the crowd.
"We have a problem," Dominick said, and Arthur turned to glance back over his shoulder at him. It didn't take more than a moment of looking at Dominick's expression to guess what the problem might be.
"Missing?" Arthur said and then exhaled in soft, but unsurprised, irritation when Dominick nodded.
It was not as though Eames was a new person, suddenly, reformed of all his sins, including the tendency to be late. For an uncharitable moment, Arthur wondered if maybe he'd finally discovered that the duke's violin was gone and had chosen to run rather than show up and face the consequences. But Arthur wouldn't have called cowardice one of Eames's flaws, and it seemed unlikely in the end.
"What do we do?" he asked.
Dominick pressed his lips together in a silent expression of concern, but Mallorie, drawing close by his side, only looked determined.
"I will find Yusuf," she said. "He can keep time as well as Eames, and we will just have to do the rest and play better than we ever have."
"What about the violin? The solo?" Dominick asked, looking at Arthur. Without looking, he knew that Ariadne was watching him as well. He shook his head.
"We don't need to worry about that until midnight. I'll handle it."
Dominick frowned uncertainly but with a great deal to do and guests waiting, he seemed reluctant to waste time and nodded soon after. "All right. I'll stall the duke."
Yusuf had to be roused out of his rooms where he'd hidden away with a bottle of wine and a book, apparently trusting that Eames could handle the concert on his own. Arthur could not guess at what Mallorie had told him when she fetched him because by the time he arrived to herd them all into quick warm-ups, he seemed more thoughtful than concerned or perturbed about their concert master's absence.
"He'll drag himself in eventually," was all Yusuf had to say on the topic before he was waving at Dominick to produce his music so that Yusuf could at least glance over it before they began.
In different circumstances, Arthur thought, he might be growing concerned himself, but there wasn't time for it. He would just have to trust that, for an hour or so, Eames could take care of himself.
The crowd grew hushed as they took their places at the front of the hall. The duke himself stood at the front, with the Carità's governors clustered about him. The only sounds were the shuffling of music and a few concerned murmurs as the others realized that they really were about to perform without Eames. Arthur brought his violin up to rest, ready, on his shoulders and kept his eyes on the duke, allowing himself to wonder, for a moment, whether they looked anything alike.
Then Yusuf raised his hands, and they began to play.
There were no nerves now, not a single pause or missed beat. The music rose up like something travelling over the waves towards them, like a promise that no matter what happened on this last night of carnival, the sun would rise again in the morning and life would go on. Arthur found that the worries that had been crowding his mind seemed smaller in comparison. The music mattered. As long as he could keep it, he would be fine.
They played through their entire repertoire, pausing only briefly at the end of individual movements to allow a short smattering of applause. Time seemed to barely pass from Arthur's perspective, but time was a deceptive thing that way. When Yusuf's hands finally fell, letting the last note of the last piece die away, Arthur looked about and realized that it was, suddenly, approaching midnight.
Soon, there would be no more time to put things off. It was, in a way, nearly relieving.
The bearded governor left his place at the duke's right hand and stepped up to stand by Yusuf. "Wonderful," he said, clapping his hands, his stiff smile only barely hidden beneath his whiskers. "A wonderful performance. It's only a shame our maestro couldn't be here himself." He stopped clapping and let his hands, clasped, drop in front of him. "And now, if you please, a moment of silence. The end of carnival is upon us."
For a moment, the only sound was silence and then faintly, in the distance, the chime of the clock bells in the piazza could be heard, signalling midnight. Arthur tucked his violin away and got slowly to his feet. It was time. He took a step forward, around his music stand, ignoring Dominick as he hissed, "What are you doing?" Ignoring Yusuf as he shot a confused look his way and waved with his hand for Arthur to sit back down.
The guests were beginning to remove their masks. The last chime of the clock reverberated in the air. Arthur opened his mouth to speak and then shut it again when he realized it wasn't the clock he could hear still, like something shimmering in the air in front of him, but the sound of a violin.
The crowd began to part, like a ripple spreading outwards, and the man in black walked down the space they left, playing a song filled with sadness and longing as he passed. It was the violin, Arthur knew immediately, because no other instrument he'd ever heard could sound like that. And the man in black just as clearly, despite the mask still drawn across his face, was Eames – because no one else could play like that. If the music hadn't already silenced Arthur, the surprise and sharp spike of fury would have done it anyway.
Eames brought the song to an abrupt halt as he reached the duke, dipping into a deep bow. "I apologize for my tardiness once again," he said. "Hopefully, it will prove to have been worth the wait." And then, without waiting for a response from the duke – or the gaping, fuming governors – he turned to Arthur and held out the violin and bow in one hand while he pushed his mask up to the crown of his head with the other. A smirk played at the corner of his mouth, and Arthur most definitely wanted to hit him and kiss him at the same time.
"I believe," Eames said, "that it is your turn, Arthur."
Carefully, all too aware now of how easily the violin could break, Arthur took it from Eames and held it in front of his chest. A moment passed, two. Arthur could feel every pair of eyes in the hall fixed on him, waiting to see if a miracle would happen while Arthur stared at the instrument in his hands and tried to convince himself that he still did not believe in miracles. Except--
Except that the violin had been broken and then stolen and yet had still managed to arrive here, at exactly the moment it was needed. And Arthur himself had been lost and then found before making his way here. So much could have gone irreparably wrong but hadn't. If not a miracle, it was nonetheless something that couldn't be ignored.
Arthur raised the violin slowly and tucked it under his chin. He didn't know what he would play. In all the wild mess of the last few days, there hadn't been time to consider the question of what he would play when, or if, the moment came around. So he reached back into his memory for the first melody to come to mind, and something floated up from the recent past, a nearly inaudible hum that had rumbled around in Eames's chest in those few moments after, when they were lying on his bed. He caught it, held on to it, and brought his bow down to the strings.
It was a disappointment almost immediately. Not the instrument, which played as beautifully as Arthur had imagined it would, smooth and rich like honey, and not the melody either, which was simpler than the things Eames usually composed, a gentle rising and falling, like a lullaby. But it felt no different than any other time he'd played and, Arthur thought, after all that they'd all been through for it, it should have felt at least a little different.
Then Dominick said, very suddenly, "Mallorie?"
He opened his eyes again and looked back at where Mallorie was now standing among the other woodwinds, her hands clenched at her side and her face as pale as the duke's white mask.
"Play it again," she instructed and when Arthur's only reaction was to furrow his eyebrows in confusion, she said it again. "Play it again, Arthur. Please."
Uncertainly, Arthur began again, and Mallorie walked toward him as if she was being carried forward by some unseen force. Her eyes were on his fingers, not his face, and when she stopped in front of him, she began to sing in shapeless sounds, a thoughtful expression pinching her face. To Arthur, it looked like she was millions of leagues away. He played to the end of what he knew with her, but she carried on for a few bars more, giving the melody a more fitting ending that echoed about the high ceiling of the hall. And then she blinked at him, and Arthur knew that the expression on his face must be at least as confused as the one on hers.
"I know that song," she said and then she rounded on Eames. "Why do I know that song?"
Eames just smiled obliquely up at her, as if the question did not need to be answered. It was the duke who answered instead.
"Because your mother wrote it for you," he said, his words muffled at first by the mask until he reached up to untie the fastening behind his head. The face behind it was tired but kind. "She had a way with music as well. And a lovely singing voice. She sang it to you when you were a baby."
Mallorie looked back and forth between them, from Eames to the duke and then back to Eames. Arthur couldn't tell, looking at the expression on her face, what she was thinking, even though he'd spent long stretches of his childhood trying to picture what this moment might feel like if it was him.
"How?" Mallorie asked finally, sounding bewildered and a little lost, uncertain like she was unwilling to accept what the duke had just said but wanted to anyway. The duke looked up at her as though he wanted to step forward and take her by the hand but didn't.
Instead, Eames did, offering his hand out to her. Mallorie regarded it with hesitation for a moment and then took it and let him guide her down the few short steps to the hall floor.
"When I was growing up, I spent a little time in Cremona," Eames explained, "and had the opportunity to see your mother once or twice before she passed away. When you showed up on my doorstep, the family resemblance was obvious. But you wouldn't be the first young woman that someone has tried to pawn off as the duke's lost child based on your looks alone so when the duke and I sat down for a friendly card game the other night, I asked him for a song that you, and only you, might know and then suggested to Arthur" – here, Eames's eyes darted his way for a moment before fixing back on Mallorie's face – "that he might use it when he played."
They'd come to a stop before the duke. Mallorie was a good head shorter than he was but standing close together like that, there was something in the shape of their chins, maybe, and the set of their eyes that seemed similar.
Mallorie was silent for a moment as she took it in but then, quietly, as though she wasn't standing in a room of a hundred strangers, she said, "Father." And the change in the duke was immediate. He smiled and seemed to drop ten years in the process, taking up her hand and bending over to kiss it. Mallorie, though, ran and never walked in the direction her heart led her and threw her arms around his neck when he'd straightened up again, making the duke laugh.
A cheer went up from the gathered crowd, a bit perplexed and unsure, as though most of them were not quite sure what they'd observed or what it all meant. It was, for a miracle, not a particularly showy one, Arthur thought, too easy to confuse with life just going on as life does. The governors all looked uniformly and satisfyingly poleaxed, though, aware that they had to look pleased but already busily calculating the consequences of this unexpected turn of events. Mallorie looked delighted, smiling and wiping tears off her cheek, turning to gesture for a frowning Dominick to come down and meet her family officially.
Arthur supposed that it was all right that he and the violin had been forgotten by most, now that their role as the instrument of this happy ending was complete. But as he finally tore his eyes away from Mallorie and the duke, he found that Eames, at least, was watching him and when their eyes met, Eames dipped his head in a nod, like an ironic Well done. Arthur twisted his lips wryly and nodded in turn, pointedly, toward the door.
The air smelled like smoke and brine when Arthur stepped out into the courtyard, the lingering evidence of fireworks mixed with the familiar, comforting scent of the tides churning in the canals. It was cool under the trees and still – except for the sound of laughter and congratulations still coming through the doors to the Carità and what might have been someone throwing up beyond the wall.
Arthur stopped in the far corner of the garden and turned, crossing his arms over his chest as he waited for Eames to appear. It didn't take long. He was still dressed all in black, though he'd left his mask behind, and Arthur bit his lip and thought that this conversation would be much easier to have if he didn't have to have it while staring at the vee of skin exposed by the collar of Eames's shirt.
"You knew I took the violin this entire time?" Arthur asked without preamble.
Eames drew to a stop by the tree to Arthur's left and leaned against its trunk, raising a hand to pick at his bottom lip as if somehow that might conceal the fact that he was grinning. "Not the entire time. Master Saito only told me when you brought it in for repairs."
Arthur huffed quietly but couldn't bring himself to feel particularly offended or even surprised. A favour from the maestro of the Carità meant a lot more than a favour from a student after all.
"You could've said something," he said instead.
Eames lifted an eyebrow, sceptical. "And you could've mentioned that you'd broken the thing and then run off with it," he said and then laughed at Arthur's no doubt reluctantly bashful expression. "Let's just admit that we both have some practicing to do at being honest, shall we?"
After a moment's hesitation, Arthur dipped his chin in a nod of agreement. He wasn't certain how genuinely he meant it, but that was probably fair. He wasn't certain how genuinely Eames meant it either.
The nod won a sudden, wide smile from Eames, though, who shouldered himself away from the tree and stepped in close enough to Arthur that Arthur bit his lip in anticipation. But when Eames's hand came up, it wasn't to thread into Arthur's hair or hold his jaw like before. Instead, he pressed his palm, flat and heavy, against Arthur's chest.
"Are you disappointed?" he asked in a voice barely above a whisper and at Arthur's confused frown, he drummed his fingers, just under Arthur's collarbones, pattering his fingertips against the ring. Reflexively, Arthur reached up, sneaking his fingers underneath Eames's to grab it.
"Because," Eames explained, with a knowing sort of smirk, "you read the poem and found the symbol of the duke's house and couldn't help asking yourself, 'What if?'"
It would always be like this, Arthur realized then. Eames would always be a little too brilliant and a little too smug to be entirely bearable, and Arthur would spend his days alternating between frustration and admiration for as long as they both remained at the Carità. For Eames, now at least, that was likely to be a very long time.
"Not disappointed, exactly," Arthur said, letting his hand drop back to his side. "I have a friend who's probably more disappointed than I am."
"The lion is the symbol of the patrician of Venice," Eames said, "but can you guess how many lion rings there are in this city? Sometimes a bird is just a bird."
Arthur looked ruefully down at his feet. He had let himself start to believe it, deep down, but now that the possibility was gone, he found he didn't miss it as much as he would've thought. No, he wasn't disappointed. He glanced back up at Eames and felt an unbidden smile tug at one corner of his mouth.
"Just like violins don't perform miracles?" he asked.
Eames snorted, eyebrows lifting up high on his forehead. "We both know that was mostly just me."
"Be quiet," Arthur said, with an unintended level of warmth in his voice, and reached out to hook his fingers into that tempting vee of shirt and tug Eames forward.
He came easily, and Arthur bit at the soft curve of his lower lip with the unhurried satisfaction of someone who did not have to worry if he was allowed or if he'd have another opportunity. Eames's hands came up to cup his jaw, to press his thumbs right in front of Arthur's earlobe as his tongue flicked against the point of Arthur's tongue and then away again.
Arthur made a short noise of protest when, only a moment later, not nearly long enough, Eames pulled back.
"Mallorie will be leaving, you realize," he said. "And I wouldn't be surprised if she talks her father into taking Dominick with them. Have you considered where you'll go next?"
Arthur thought about protesting that this seemed like far more thinking than he was in the mood for at the moment but then forced his eyes open and fixed Eames with a level, flat stare. "I've had other things on my mind."
"Mm," Eames hummed, "true." He darted in again to press another teasing whisper of a kiss to the corner of Arthur's mouth. After the week he'd had, Arthur felt unashamed by how easily his eyelids drooped again, how readily his body seemed to curve towards Eames to chase his mouth.
Until, that is, Eames added, "I could find you a position here. You should consider it."
And Arthur felt his spine pulling immediately straighter and his hand shooting out to hold Eames back, in surprise if nothing else. He narrowed his eyes and searched Eames's face, but there was nothing there to suggest that he was joking now. His grey eyes, for once, just seemed honest and curious, waiting for Arthur's answer, maybe even worried over what it might be.
Arthur had known two homes in his life, which he supposed was more than most people ever had. Leaving the monastery had been easy, in retrospect. It had only meant leaving behind inconsequential parts of himself: the Arthur who might have been a monk one day, the Arthur who was obedient and who had never had a friend and who could contemplate putting a life of service ahead of other things. Like Eames. Like music.
Leaving the Carità would be far, far harder. The answer was clear.
Arthur curled his hand into a fist and pressed his knuckles against Eames's chest. "You just want someone to teach your lazy violins," he said.
Eames grinned, tilting his head to one side. "Well," he said. "There is that."
Mallorie and Dominick married in the summer, something Arthur didn't learn until after the fact when Mallorie's letter arrived early one morning, delivered to the Carità's back door by a man in Cremona livery on horseback. Arthur, who was up early anyway to take the morning delivery from the baker, was able to accept it with his own two hands and, recognizing Mallorie's writing on the outside, barely made it back inside before he ripped it open.
She sounded happy and apologetic at once. We intended to invite you, Arthur, she wrote, but father would have insisted we invite all of Venice and most of France no doubt, if we had. But we'll tell you everything when we see you at Christmas. Tell Eames he can write me that duet he was always promising as a wedding present.
Arthur smiled to himself as he folded the paper back into neat quarters, tucked it away to share with Eames later, and then promptly forgot about it through the rest of his morning routine: paying the baker when he finally arrived and letting the cooks in not long after and then returning to his rooms where all his papers and his serially neglected bed were waiting for him. And then there was a little time left to lose himself in his own practice before Yusuf's footsteps in the hall outside signalled that it was nearly time to break fast.
He remembered the letter later when he took his seat between Yusuf and Eames's empty chair and felt one corner of it poke into his side.
"Late night?" asked Yusuf, looking pointedly at Eames's seat which was still more often empty than filled at this hour.
"Not that late," Arthur muttered but decided to reserve the best of his disapproving frowns from when Eames finally did drag himself in.
It wasn't until nearly the end of the meal that Eames finally did appear, looking mussed and at least still half-asleep but not in any immediate danger of falling over. He slouched into his seat beside Arthur and began picking at Arthur's leftover food rather than collecting a plate of his own, and Arthur felt only barely charitable enough not to snatch it away.
"Don't start," Eames said when he noticed Arthur staring at him. "I was working for hours after you left."
Arthur raised an eyebrow sceptically. But then, Eames sometimes did work for hours, long into the night, tweaking and perfecting or sometimes just getting lost in the music in his head. Arthur still didn't entirely understand it and likely never would, but it seemed a fair trade when, some nights, Eames would watch him play with an expression on his face like he never expected anyone to pull off what he'd written down on the page.
This was Arthur's life these days: mornings and afternoon filled with drills and technique and complaining students, nights filled with Eames's music. And if his violins left the classroom complaining a little more loudly of boredom and aching fingers than any of the rest, he could live with that. Eames might show them what music could do, what it could mean – the thousand changes, tiny and big, that it would make to your life once you let it in – but Arthur was the one who taught them how to play.
"You should have considered that before you offered me the job," Arthur observed finally, letting his eyebrow relax and retrieving Mal's letter to share.
Eames lifted it out of his hands almost immediately, curiosity written clearly on his face now that Arthur was a bit more adept at reading it, but he paused before he opened it and looked at Arthur and then smiled, as if the idea of not offering the job had quite honestly never crossed his mind.