Italy, Florence, 1500
Leonardo considered the composition, leaning back and frowning.
Behind him there was a loud sigh.
Leonardo ignored it, trying to focus on the shapes and shadows in front of him. If he focused carefully, he could nearly see the bone structure that made up the women’s face, neck and shoulders. Something bothered him about the proportions of the neck to her shoulders.
There was another sigh.
“I’ll be done in a moment,” Leonardo said absently, carefully drawing the chalk along the underside of the jaw.
“You always say that,” Salai pouted.
“The more you interrupt me, the longer it will take. This is not something that can be rushed,” Leonardo lectured, trying as always, to impart something to his apprentice.
“Like the French interrupted your bronze horse,” Salai muttered.
Leonardo breathed out through his nose, trying to beat back his temper, brought on by the sting of the remark.
‘He just wants a reaction. That’s why he’s saying these things,’ Leonardo reminded himself before turning around to face Salai.
The younger man was half draped across the bench next to a laden worktable, one leg crossed over the other and propped up on his elbow, wearing one of Leonardo’s tunics. Only the tunic. He grinned at him.
Leonardo frowned. “Do not steal my clothing, Salai, you have plenty of your own.”
Rolling his eyes, Salai uncrossed his legs, letting them drop to either side of the bench. Leonardo closed his eyes, trying to ignore the fission of heat that went up his spine.
“You know that the sculpture was no fault of my own, Salai,” Leonardo continued, trying for an even tone. He’s not sure he will ever really feel ‘even’ about watching French soldiers chip away at a sculpture that took years to build. Leonardo had enough trouble finishing commissions without outside help.
“Of course not maestro.” The condescension in Salai’s tone prickled along Leonardo’s neck. He ignored his apprentice and turned back to the drawing, carefully shading along the underside of the woman’s neck, the result being that her jaw became stronger, more defined in the fire light. He was pleased with the effect and copied the technique on the infant in her delicate hands.
Leonardo was so focused, he jumped when a pair of arms wrapped around his middle.
“Leonardo, it is late and the drawing will still be here in the morning. This isn’t a commission, let it be, please,” Salai whispered, standing on his toes to kiss the back of Leonardo’s neck. Leonardo stood still and closed his eyes, soaking in the feeling of warm skin in so sensitive a place.
The artist hesitated, mind going in one direction, heart and body in another. With Salai’s body heat soaking into him, he realized that he was becoming tired, and his shoulders and arms had become stiff from standing in the same position for so long.
But his mind rebelled. Leonardo was interested in the drawing now. How could he say what his dreams would bring? Some other fantastic new line of thought to explore, like the undiscovered waters of a virgin stream, untouched except by those that dared.
Rooted by his own indecision, Salai made the choice for him. Taking the chalk, he put it aside and turned Leonardo around.
“To bed, si?”
With a sigh Leonardo smiled, half fond and half melancholy. He did not know if he would get his vision for the drawing back, but tried to hold it in his mind’s eye.
He kissed the younger man, softly, tasting the wine that lingered on his lips from supper.
“Si, Salai, to bed.”
1519, Amboise, France.
“Come on maestro. The chapel isn’t too much farther,” Melzi clung tightly to Leonardo’s arm as they walked up the hill.
The day was warm, nearly uncomfortably so. Birds twittered overhead and Leonardo watched them until they disappeared over the horizon. It reminded him of walking in Florence and buying birds simply to set them free again. In his chest, his heart was pumping too hard for what should have been a simple walk up the hill.
‘Age is one of the true curses of man,’ Leonardo reflected bitterly.
Melzi continued to guide him as they walked, looking around at the French countryside. His young apprentice had remained loyally with Leonardo, treating him with the same reverence he would his father. And indeed, Leonardo held him in the same esteem he would have if Melzi had been his son.
The chapel came into sight and Leonardo sighed. Inside would be cooler, if nothing else.
They made it right as the bells for morning mass began to ring, and soon the heavy scent of incense clouded Leonardo’s head, making it uncomfortably muddled. Melzi seemed to have no such problems, guiding them to the very front pew.
Leonardo looked up at the expressions of devotion that enshrined the altar in front of them, and barely held back a snort.
Whoever had sculpted the Savior had made his torso too long, the bellybutton coming to sit too low, nearly equal with his hips.
If he had been younger, less tired, and his hand still in working condition, Leonardo probably could have done much better.
But now he had other things to occupy his ever-diminishing time. Just as Leonardo believed he was finally starting to understand, his body started to waste away on him.
As mass started, Leonardo followed along dutifully, brain occupied with other thoughts, and staring transfixed at the altar. If Melzi noticed, he didn’t say, resolute in his own worship.
Leonardo was staring at one of the candles guttering on the alter. It seemed like someone had missed replacing it, and now it was hardly more than a puddle of wax with a tiny flame in the center. As ceremonies concluded, the priest turned around and the displaced air finally caused the flickering light to flutter and extinguish.
“Maestro?” Melzi gently touched Leonardo’s arm. The old artist turned to him. “Leonardo, your eyes are wet, are you alright?”
Leonardo blinked in the dim light, and touched his eye, startled to see the moisture that clung to his fingers.
“Ah, yes. It is the smoke from the incense, nothing more,” he hastily assured the young man. Melzi didn’t look altogether assured and patted Leonardo on the arm.
“Come, let’s get you back to bed, maestro.”
Leonardo sighed, a heaviness settling into his chest.
“Si, to bed.”