Disclaimer: don't own, don't make money.
Written for Jinxed-Wood, for the hlh_shortcuts exchange of 2009. Many thanks to GoldenRat for the beta-reading!
A Feast in the Time of Plague
Parlez-moi de Florence…
Frollo, Notre-Dame de Paris
You try being her!
Methos, 'Methuselah's Gift'
Florence, 1348 AD
"Requiem aeternam, dona eis, Domine…" monotone voice filled the street. Methos stepped aside, giving a way to a long funeral procession; the third one today. The priest nodded to him politely, without interrupting his service; he hadn't recognized him, of course, nobody could through this ridiculous mask, it was a sign of respect to the profession the mask represented.
Methos waited until the procession passed and then went to the nearest alley, deciding he'd done enough good deeds for today. He took off the bird-like mask and hid it in his bag; it really irritated him. The monstrous thing was believed to protect physicians from contagion. Methos didn't fear the disease, but it wasn't a good idea to draw any extra attention. In times like these people always sought to blame someone and those who tried to help often ended up on the stake first. The black cloak, another symbol of the medical profession, followed the mask; Methos now looked like a common merchant or some minor noble.
He continued on his way to Mario's tavern, which was amazingly still open and served decent food. He had to take the roundabout route, since via Napoli was blocked by an abandoned body of some poor vagrant. Not the first one he'd seen today, either. Actually, he had never seen so many dead in one place before — and for a man once called Death that was something. But even Kronos had been put to shame by his namesake; the Great Pestilence was conquering Europe. And Methos feared that Florence would be completely deserted once the Plague was done with it. And he didn't want that to happen, he loved the blossoming city, its beautiful and magnificent churches and palaces, its people – independent and talented, both in art and trade… So he did what little he could do to save it.
…When the plague started, he'd been living in Florence for two years, leading a rather active life. His main goal had been to infuriate the Florence chapter of Watchers, one of the oldest ones in Western Europe; he had been close to success when the nightmare had begun. Giorgio, one of his friends at the time, a physician and secret alchemist, had tried to find a cure and Methos had joined him. Giorgio was young and full of enthusiasm, the kind Methos had been always drawn to, mortals and Immortals alike, and he'd buried the lad three months later. And soon afterward he'd buried another three men like him, always being sure to document their findings to be spread and remembered. The Watchers archives weren't so lucky, the entire chapter had been wiped out in the first two months, and some good citizen, fearing the books carried the contagion, had burned them all before Methos had a chance to even look at them. The senseless loss of Chronicles pained him more then any human death that year…
A sudden feeling of Immortal presence (the first during his current stay in Florence) stopped his musings. He instinctively started to retreat through a back alley, but soon changed his mind. After the dull and ugly monotony of last months, even a challenge seemed a welcomed distraction. And he could use a Quickening, it had been too long.
He looked around cautiously, noticing that he nearly reached the church of San Lorenzo, drew a step towards the entrance and saw the visitor. The clothes were male, but the face female and familiar. Rebecca's girl, Amanda…. So the charming little thief was still alive, she had a sharp wit behind that pretty smile of hers. Most likely, there wouldn't be any challenge tonight; but surely a distraction.
This definitely wasn't her day, Amanda thought, feeling that an Immortal was nearby. Or her week.
She had traveled to Florence to visit Marco Vanucci, a rich noble she'd completely charmed in Rome three years ago. But his villa had been abandoned and she couldn't find him in the city; he had either fled the Plague or already fallen victim to it. But, as she already had found herself in Florence, Amanda decided to try and retrieve one of her hidden treasures. So she was watching comings and goings from the church of San Lorenzo, where she had hid an emerald necklace more than a century ago, when an Immortal Presence ruined her plans. She hurried into the protection of the church, but the unknown Immortal had already blocked her path. Wait, he wasn't an unknown Immortal, she suddenly recognized him, Methos, an old friend of Rebecca.
They had met in Rebecca's castle at the turn of the millennium. There had been a lot of people at the time, both mortal and Immortal, some wanting sanctuary from the coming Apocalypse, some just waiting until the mass hysteria was over. Amanda had been nearly two centuries old then and had already taken a dozen heads, she had believed herself to be an experienced Immortal; and then she had seen Methos and Rebecca sparring and heard them talking. For the first time she had realized just how old her teacher was and how much in the world Amanda herself had yet to see and to learn. Methos himself had been arrogant, intolerable, constantly teasing — and terribly seductive. Of course, back then Amanda hadn't dared to challenge Rebecca's claim on the man, but today was another story. And besides, she could use a little help with that necklace…
"You did what?" Methos asked incredulously, nearly choking on his wine. They were sitting in Mario's Tavern, a much better place to talk and catch up then a church porch during evening mass.
Amanda blinked innocently and repeated, "I hid the necklace in the cache in the altar. I had no other choice! I couldn't afford to be caught with it."
"And you think it's still there?"
She shrugged. "Nobody else knew about the cache."
"Except for the poor young priest you've sent straight to Hell."
"It wasn't me!" she exclaimed with feigned offence. "He made his choice. I didn't force him to do anything!"
Methos chuckled, "Well, I can believe you didn't use a knife, only a couple of smiles. And now you want my help with retrieving that piece of jewelry?"
She nodded and smiled.
"Why should I risk my position of a respectable citizen of fair Florence for you?"
"Methos, I know how to be grateful," she licked her lips slowly and Methos laughed aloud at the gesture. Though he had to admit, she was a seductive little thing; and it had been too long.
"And being a respectable citizen is so boring," Amanda continued, "a little adventure is always good."
Well, Methos had wanted a distraction earlier, hadn't he?
"Maybe you are right, but if you want a little adventure, then we need a plan."
The plan they formed that evening worked perfectly. The emerald necklace was safely resting in a pouch on Amanda's chest. And Methos had even admitted that it had been a good idea to retrieve it, such a piece of art shouldn't stay hidden. Amanda was full with excitement, and, as they moved far enough from the church, she commented, "Pity it wasn't safe to go to Mario's tavern, I want to celebrate our success. Is there another one nearby?"
Methos looked around. "Via Gatti. We don't need a tavern here." He led her through a narrow alley to a small patio.
In the middle stood a large table, with a lot of food and drinks on it. More than a dozen men and women sat around it, talking and laughing loudly.
"What is it?" Amanda asked, astonished by the sight.
"A feast in the time of plague, my lady. Come, I know a few people, they'll let us join."
He took a step forward, but stopped, seeing that Amanda was reluctant to follow. She was truly stunned. She could afford to be light-hearted and even cynical, after all, she was Immortal and invulnerable to disease, but these mortals? How could they be feasting right on the street, where death was walking, literally?
The man seated at the head of the table rose with a goblet in hand, exclaiming, "Listen to me, my friends! I will sing to you a hymn to honor the Plague. I created it this morning, after we had earlier parted."
"A hymn to the Plague?" Amanda whispered, struck.
Methos shrugged. "Let's listen. It's Valerio, he has a way with words."
Valerio took a sip from his goblet, and then began in a rich and low voice:
There is an ecstasy in battle
and on the somber chasm's edge,
and in the ragings of the ocean,
the dreadful waves and thundering dark,
and in the Arabian hurricane,
and in the breathing of the Plague.
Whatever threatens us with doom
hides in itself, for mortal hearts
unspeakable pleasures – guarantee
perhaps of immortality!
And happy the one who finds and knows
those pleasures mid this turbulence.
Praise be to you then, O Plague,
we do not fear the darkness of the grave,
we do not fear your summons!
We raise our foaming glasses in friendly spirit
and drink in the rosy fragrance of a maiden's breath,
Filled, for all we know, with the Plague! *
Amanda listened, enchanted from the first line, but the approving shouts as the song had ended broke the spell.
"Do you think it makes sense?" she whispered to Methos. "About pleasures and immortality?"
He turned and looked at her with a strange expression on his face.
"How old are you, Amanda?" he asked out of the blue, and continued before she could answer. "Five centuries, six? You must have completely forgotten."
"What courage it takes to be a mortal in this world. The best fighter of our race, the most reckless challenger is no more than a petty coward in comparison with them. We can win all our fights, with skill, cheating or luck, or by hiding from them, but they can't. They are doomed from the beginning, and yet they still fight, and in the middle of that fight find something we have lost forever."
Amanda never believed him capable of such a speech; she sensed some deep truth in his words, but she didn't want to think on it. Her earlier excitement was gone, all she wanted now was to hide somewhere from everything, from death and from philosophical questions.
"There is an abandoned villa with plenty of supplies, not far from the city, to the South," she said absently. "We can spend a week or two there, just the two of us, no one will disturb us."
It was a couple of moments before Methos heard and understood Amanda's invitation. He needed a break from Florence and her struggle, and the idea of a comfortable villa with the lovely Amanda for company seemed quite appealing. It was better than pondering on the futility of human existence, anyway.
"Lead the way, my lady."
They quietly left the patio, before they would be noticed and dragged into the feast. Already disappearing into the alley, Methos cast one last glance on Valerio, who still stood, drinking from his goblet, with unnaturally bright eyes on the pale face.
All the way to the villa, Methos quietly repeated the words of the hymn in his head. The song was worth being remembered through generations.
* - lyrics from 'A Feast in the Time of Plague' ('Little Tragedies') by Aleksandr Pushkin, translated by various authors.
The Great Plague, or the Great Pestilence, also known as Black Death, was one of the deadliest pandemics in human history, peaking in Europe between 1347 and 1350. It is estimated to have killed 30% to 60% of Europe's population, and it had profound effects on the course of European history. Florence lost about a half of its population. The city's ordeal during this period has been vividly portrayed by the writer Giovanni Boccaccio in the preface to his stories of the Decameron.