Parched by Rhi
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Author's Notes:
Disclaimer: Matthew belongs to Rysher: Panzer/Davies, although I give him more work than anyone else. No infringement intended; no money made. Many thanks to Raine_Wynd for the quick turnaround on beta-ing this. Written for Killa, in thanks for the cheerleading on the Southern Comfort series. This is part of the Hidden Facets series.
Rated: PG for violence.

But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.
Amos 5:24

Blood cleans off a blade so easily, really. Some days it's dry and difficult work. Other days it's as easy as running that blade through a man. This morning, though -- this morning was easy, both the killing and the aftermath.

I can't say that I object to it being easy. I've had a good deal more practice than most duelists, and far more demanding masters and opponents. Given my age, and the training -- and practice -- I've had, a mortal duelist, no matter how good, shouldn't be a real challenge. Luck might have been on his side, but skill shouldn't.

So killing him was easy enough, and I'd surely do it again, but why am I sitting here scratching this out when I should finish packing? Writing it with a quill that won't sharpen properly and me with no inclination to find and trim another? Suppose I'll clean the ink off my hands when I'm done, and damn the shirt cuffs anyway. They're already blood-stained after all, and destined for the nearest fire. The quill is a nuisance, however, almost as much so as remembering the right verb forms in a language I haven't used in decades. Too many Irish and Scottish soldiers are hiring their services out to put it in Gaelic, and Welsh is scarcely more secure should I be arrested -- unlikely though that seems. But I'm going to this trouble, and in such a way as to keep it secure, which means something about it is still bothering me.

The problem, I suspect, is that killing Massimiliano Antonucci was both easier than he ever dreamed it could be and far more gratifying that I'm happy about. Running my blade through him was a pleasure. So was twisting it in his gut while his face went white -- more from shock than pain, I'd say. He thought it could never happen to him, the damn fool. Watching him try to stand while his knees gave out under him and his arms wouldn't hold him was also a pleasure. His second never made a move towards me; Alessandro would have skewered him if he'd tried, but it wasn't my problem. It still isn't. My problem is that if the sorry son of a sow could get back up from the shallow grave he deserves, I would happily kill Antonucci again tomorrow, and I would repeat every cut, and twist, and gouge. That worries me.

I did to him precisely what he's done to so many others, even if I felt obliged to wait until I'd resigned from Enrico's service. (I really should finish packing. I don't want to put Enrico through the task of deciding whether -- or how -- to have me arrested by men I trained.) I stalked Antonucci through balls and dances, through taverns and bordellos, until he fell into my hands and I could claim offense and challenge him. It's no more than he's done to a dozen others, and I couldn't prove it on any of them. There were always witnesses to admit that his victims had erred somehow, and I must admit the dictates of honor have their uses. They also has their abuses, and this was one.

There was something fitting in challenging a paid murderer with his own technique, though. I can understand wanting the penalty to match the crime, and not least because it's a more effective deterrent that way. This wasn't just done for poetic justice, or to make it 'fitting.' Killing Antonucci with his own technique -- killing him slowly, and viciously, because I'd best be honest with myself if with no one else -- was as satisfying as cold well water after a day's plowing and planting. I think that's where my real problem lies.

I wanted Antonucci to know what was happening. I wanted to let make him taste what his victims tasted, the acid fear creeping into his throat from his belly, the slippery chill of things sliding out of his control and away from his grasp. I wanted him to wait for dawn because someone called him out, not because he was going to make money from it, and I hope he felt as cold with worry as his victims did. And I wanted him to feel his guts sliding loose in his own blood and know that it was time to pray for a swift death. Most of his victims didn't receive such.

I still don't understand why I needed to kill him in particular, however. Antonucci was hardly the only duelist in the city, much less the world. He's surely not the only one who's killed friends of mine, mortal or immortal. But I wanted him dead at my own hand so badly that I resigned an obligation I enjoyed and which served this city, gave over my good name (which I'll probably have to change before this is over), and I'll likely have to leave before dawn so I'm not hunted down by another friend for breaking laws I helped uphold. Why?

For that matter, why am I turning this over in my hands like some frippery I didn't realize I wanted? Some painting, I suppose. I never have cared much for gems.

Antonucci perverted the law, using the old codes and laws, and the dictates of civilized behavior, to prey on those who tried to hold things together. That's part of it, I dare say. He betrayed his hosts -- most of them; some of them may have hired him to make the challenges -- and he betrayed his employers, I trust. They may have contracted for murders, but I dearly hope they didn't contract for slow, lingering deaths of putrescence and disease. Gut wounds are so rarely clean, and the deaths so rarely kind. One of his victims recovered -- the blade went through muscle, not entrails -- but the others died, mostly slowly. Not from lack of skill on his part. Antonucci wasn't up to facing me, or several other immortals I know, but he surely could have managed to run them through heart or lung. He preferred to leave a lingering death behind him; one of those who enjoyed it if people edged away from him in the streets. Rumors that Antonucci had been hired lie behind two arranged marriages that might just as well have been blackmail and extortion.

Wonder if anyone offered to pay him if he managed to kill me? His disappointment -- or hers, I suppose; there's a woman or two who'd pay to see me buried -- would only make this sweeter.

Why did I need to kill this man, though? Him and not a dozen others? Hell, I've thrown so much away, why not go and challenge all the whoresons and leave this identity in a shower of blood? Blood washes away sins, some of the priests say.

I could do it, I suppose. They some of them surely deserve death, but... it makes me no better than they are.

And there it is, finally.

I can't afford to become a person who thirsts for murder.

It is a thirst in some, and I've seen it in mortals and immortals both. A taste for death, for blood, for the power of life. (The only power over it our kind will ever have, damn it all. I would have loved to have children that were mine in more than love, although that's no small thing itself.) Some men thirst for death and control the way others do for wine, and others for riches, or power, or both, but it's all deadly.

Go down that path and one day you stop watching your back, watching your neighbors -- or make so many enemies that no amount of watchfulness will save you -- and soon after that an immortal you didn't know was there challenges you. That's the point at which you find that you've neglected your weapon's practice too much, or missed noticing that a neighbor has grown and aged and decided your own lack of white hairs and wrinkles need burning out....

And if it came to that point, I wouldn't know myself in the mirror anymore. Or I'd not care, which would be worse. I've done foul things in my life, but in all, I'm still my father's son. Antonucci isn't worth giving that up. It's hard to think of much that would be.

So. Time to pack, and leave. A new name, a new land, mayhap a visit to Darius if I can find him -- surely he's left word in Paris, or Marcus will know where I can find him. Marcus is in Cairo these days, and he's always said I need to learn the Arab tongues. Regardless, it's time I was going -- before I find that the essential parts of me have already departed to some location such that I can't find them again.

Ceirdwyn warned me more than once about the ways I tangle myself in myself, and that I'm fastest to do so for love, or honor, or duty. I do have to wonder which one this was?

My temper still surprises me when it erupts, the moreso with how and where it surfaces, and the way it lingers. I do have to wonder if I'll ever master it. Or would that, too, change me too much?

Perhaps there'll be time aboard ship to consider it.

At least Antonucci's dead. In his own way, however, so is Matteo Magnani. Wonder if anyone would look for an English immortal under an Irish surname?

~ ~ ~ finis ~ ~ ~

Comments, Commentary, and Miscellanea:

Killa wanted me to write Matthew for the Hidden Facets series. I was wondering was what it would take to make Matthew deliberately shatter the spirit of the law. This was my answer.