Master Afanas was the best ivory carver in Nicosia. Although he worked predominantly in wood, his workshop also produced magnificent ivory inlays. He had a large workshop near the Kyrenia gate, and he frequently received commissions for altar screens, choir stalls, and other furniture for churches and monasteries. The work with inlaid ivory, on the other hand, was rare, small scale, and usually for the Italians.
It was, Lakis reminded himself, a privilege to learn your trade under such a master. But as an orphan, Lakis had no contract. He’d obtained his position by showing the master the combs and buckles he’d made from bone, and Master Afanas had been interested enough to agree to take him on under conditions that Lakis increasingly saw as slavery.
To be sure, he was allowed to sleep in the workshop, which wasn’t bad since the wood shavings made a sweet-smelling, soft bed, and he was given the same hearty midday meal provided all the apprentices. But that was where “remuneration” ended. Lakis received no pocket money for baths, clothes, or wine. Since he had no home at which to obtain breakfast or dinner, he was almost always hungry. Worst of all, he could not sell what he produced, because “the Master” had the right to everything made in the workshop.
Work started early, ended late, and was accompanied by what seemed like constant criticism from Master Afanas combined with sneering and heckling from the other apprentices, all of whom felt themselves better than “the beggar.” Sometimes their insults and jokes inspired Lakis to work harder and be better—but sometimes, like tonight, they just made him miserable and tired. One of them had “accidentally” knocked over the little chest of drawers he’d been working on for two weeks and it lay on the floor, a heap of broken pieces.
Master Afanas had hit the boy responsible with his stick and vowed to deduct the cost of the materials from his allowance as he chased him and the others home for the night. But the chest was still ruined, and two weeks of work had been for nothing.
“Don’t look so broken-hearted,” Master Afanas advised in a businesslike tone. “Your work wasn’t that good. Hopefully your next try will be better. You certainly aren’t going to be entrusted with any ivory if you can’t do better than that.” He indicated the broken box with a dismissive gesture. “I told you when I took you on that you had just one year to start producing things I can sell to real customers. You’ve only got until Christmas to meet my standards. After that you’re back out with your friends behind the abattoir!”
“I don’t have any friends!” Lakis shot back at him, hardening his feelings.
“No wonder, either! Sullen little brat that you are. I don’t doubt your last master ran you out for being impudent and rude! I didn’t ask any questions when I took you on—but believe me, if I hear something that makes you a liability, you’re out on your ear! Now clean up that mess and bar the door after me. I’m late for dinner as it is.”
The Master was out the door, leaving Lakis behind feeling sorry for himself as he squatted down beside the wreck of his masterpiece and started picking up the pieces. He had been so proud of it. He had thought it was up to Master Afanas’ standards. He’d pictured it in an apothecary, filled with precious drugs, or maybe adorning a lady’s table, holding beautiful jewels.
Tears started to well in his eyes, and to defeat them he deflected his emotions into rage. He threw the pieces across the room and screamed “Damn you! Damn you!” Only he didn’t know who he was damning: Master Afanas, his fellow apprentices, or the Franks who had killed his parents and left him an orphan.
The thought of the Franks, however, reminded him of Janis. He had almost been a friend. At least he’d been friendly, but Lakis had sensed something was fishy right from the start. Lakis had suspected he was the son or servant of an Italian merchant. But then, months after their last meeting, he’d caught sight of someone who looked like Janis all dressed up in fine Frankish clothes and riding a beautiful horse beside one of the Frankish lords. He hadn’t wanted to believe it, so he had started lurking around the palace. Sure enough, “Janis” came and went with easy familiarity, although he lived in the khan opposite. By asking around a little, Lakis soon discovered that the man Janis was usually beside was none other than Aimery de Lusignan, the brother of the tyrant himself. Then the tyrant died (terribly, it was said), and now this Aimery de Lusignan had taken over as tyrant.
It made Lakis sick and angry that Janis was one of them, but it was also Janis who had suggested he apprentice to a real carver. Angry as Lakis was, he still recognized that he’d learned a huge amount in the last ten months. Even if Master Afanas threw him out, he’d be better able to fend for himself.
With a deep sigh of resignation, he went and barred the door, then collected the broken remnants of his box and carried them over to the fireplace. A low fire burned there day and night, fed just enough discarded, unsuitable, and remnant wood to keep it from going out and so keep the chill off the air. With great solemnity Lakis fed the shattered pieces of his masterpiece into the fire and watched them burn, one piece at a time. In the flames he imagined his father’s mill burning.
He hadn’t actually seen it burn, because he’d been sent up to the brothers of Antiphonitis to ask for help before the Franks set fire to it. The brothers had not allowed him to go down the hill for weeks afterwards. Nor had they allowed him to see the remains of his parents and sisters. They had put the bodies in a coffin and nailed it shut before they let him near it. It had smelled so terrible he had gagged and backed away. The brothers had comforted him, and now they too were in the hands of the Franks. Some said they had been put into a dark hole to starve, and others said they were already martyrs, crucified just like Christ. Lakis didn’t know what to think.
A loud pounding at the door made him jump clear out of his skin. He sprang to his feet and called in a voice high with alarm: “Who’s there? What do you want? We’re closed!”
“Lakis!” The voice was low, unfamiliar but urgent.
“Yes, I’m called Lakis,” the orphan answered sullenly, going closer to the door to stand in front of it, arms crossed stubbornly. “Who are you and what do you want?”
“It’s me, Brother Zotikos! From Antiphonitis. Let me in!” The man had dropped his voice to nearly a whisper.
Lakis was terrified. Had he conjured up the dead? Summoning all his courage, he declared to the closed door as forcefully as possible: “Brother Zotikos is in a Frankish dungeon! Whoever you are, go away!”
“Lakis, listen! I can’t shout or it will attract attention. Father Eustathios and seven of my brothers were arrested, but I wasn’t at Antiphonitis when the Franks came. I’m still free. Let me in. I need your help!”
Lakis couldn’t deny help to Brother Zotikos. He lifted the bar holding the door shut, and cracked the door open. In the darkness he saw only a monk in black robes looking anxiously over his shoulder. Then the monk turned toward the door and his dark eyes fixed on Lakis. He gasped. It was Brother Zotikos—but rather than the mild and kindly man that he had been at the monastery, he looked fierce and sinister.
Lakis backed up, opening the door only a little wider. The monk squeezed himself inside. Lakis shut the door and replaced the bar. Brother Zotikos waited for him. When they were facing one another again, the monk explained, “Your uncle told me you had run away; he wanted us to track you down and return you to him.”
“Is that why you’re here?” Lakis asked, disappointed and betrayed.
“No, I found you months ago; but since you seemed to have landed on your feet and not to be in need of your uncle’s care, I decided to leave you here.”
Lakis let out a slow sigh of relief. He did not want to return to his uncle, no matter what.
“Lakis, listen to me. I dare not stay in Nicosia very long, but I need someone—you—to deliver a package to that dog Lusignan.”
“Me? Why me? I don’t have anything to do with the despot!”
“I know. You’re a good boy. But this message is, well, a warning—to stop the Franks from doing any harm to Father Eustathios. I’m very worried that the Franks could torture or kill him. We have to stop that if we can.”
“Of course, but how? People say he may already be dead.”
“No, he’s not. I’ve checked on that. He and my brothers were taken to the Castle of Kyrenia, but the—ah—” he interrupted himself, cleared his throat, and continued “women who have, um, dealings with the garrison have been able to discover that they are being kept in the underwater dungeon. They are being given water and bread, and that is all, but so far none of them have died. We have to ensure they get better conditions soon. You know how old and ill most of my brothers are.”
“But how can I help?” Lakis wanted to know.
“It is better if you don’t know the details, but in this box is a message for the tyrant Lusignan.” From a satchel he had been carrying over his shoulder, Brother Zotikos removed a beautiful carved wooden box inlaid with mother-of-pearl.
“Oh, that’s beautiful!” Lakis exclaimed, for an instant the craftsman in him overcoming everything else as he reached out to it in wonder.
“Don’t open it!” Brother Zotikos warned just as Lakis went to flip open the tiny brass latch holding the box shut.
Lakis looked up at him, alarmed.
“What’s inside is for the Frankish dogs only! You must deliver it to them—as a gift.” The way Brother Zotikos smiled as he spoke sent a shiver down Lakis’ spine. “Will you do it?”
“But—I mean—how am I going to get past their guards?”
“You sell carved objects, don’t you? You make and sell them? Everyone in Nicosia knows that. The Franks will have seen you hawking your wares all over the city.”
Lakis looked down at the box in the palms of his hand and shook his head. “I’ve never even seen anything as beautiful as this. No one will think I made it. Where is it from?”
“It comes from a land beyond Arabia. You don’t have to pretend you made it. Say your master made it and has sent you to deliver it. We must get it to the Lusignan.” There was desperation in Brother Zotikos’ voice, while his eyes burned almost feverishly. Or maybe he was feverish, thought Lakis, as the monk continued in a low, breathy voice: “I am certain God whispered your name to me, Lakis. I came to Nicosia with this mission, but without knowing how I was going to perform it. Then God whispered your name to me, and I remembered you were here, apprenticed to a master carver. I knew you were the one chosen by Him to deliver this box, this message. If you refuse, Lakis, you are not only being ungrateful for all Father Eustathios and my brothers did for you when you were orphaned, you will also be defying the will of God.”
Lakis stared at Brother Zotikos, hypnotized by his words, and a chill ran down his spine, making him shudder. Truly, he thought, only God could know that he did have a “friend” in the tyrant’s own household: his “friend” Janis. He nodded solemnly. “I’ll deliver the box, Brother Zotikos—if I can convince Master Afanas to give me some time off, that is,” he added uncertainly as he tried to rehearse what he would say.
Brother Zotikos reached out his hand in blessing. “God will reward you, Lakis!” He made the sign of the cross, then bent and kissed Lakis on both cheeks. “Tell your master it is the anniversary of your parents’ death and that you wish to attend Mass and pray for their souls. No Master would deny you time to do that.”
Lakis nodded solemnly. He had to find a way to do what Brother Zotikos said. It was not often that an orphan-turned-beggar-turned-apprentice was tasked directly by God.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish