In a chamber overlooking the nighttime waterways of a maritime city, a man looks back on his youth and the people who shaped his life. Danio Cerra's intelligence won him entry to a renowned school even though he was only the son of a tailor. He took service at the court of a ruling count—and soon learned why that man was known as the Beast.
Danio's fate changed the moment he saw and recognized Adria Ripoli as she entered the count's chambers one autumn night—intending to kill. Born to power, Adria had chosen, instead of a life of comfort, one of danger—and freedom. Which is how she encounters Danio in a perilous time and place.
Vivid figures share the unfolding story. Among them: a healer determined to defy her expected lot; a charming, frivolous son of immense wealth; a powerful religious leader more decadent than devout; and, affecting all these lives and many more, two larger-than-life mercenary commanders, lifelong adversaries, whose rivalry puts a world in the balance.
A Brightness Long Ago offers both compelling drama and deeply moving reflections on the nature of memory, the choices we make in life, and the role played by the turning of Fortune's wheel.
Related collections and offers
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
A man no longer young in a large room at night. There are lanterns and lamps, torches in brackets, a handsome table, tall, shuttered windows, paintings in shadow on the walls. He is not alone. Even so, he finds his mind turning back to when he was, indeed, still young. We all do that. A scent carries us, a voice, a name, a person who reminds us of someone we knew . . .
There are events going forward in this moment, but there is also a delay, a pause in the rush of people coming and going, and the past is closer at night.
He is thinking of a story from when he was learning the world and his place in it. He cannot tell all the tale, and he won't. We see only glimpses of history, even our own. It is not entirely ours-in memory, in writing it down, in hearing or in reading it. We can reclaim only part of the past. Sometimes it is enough . . .
The sailors say the rain misses the cloud even as it falls through light or dark into the sea. I miss her like that as I fall through my life, through time, the chaos of our time. I dream of her some nights, still, but there is nothing to give weight or value to that, it is only me, and what I want to be true. It is only longing.
I remember that autumn night very well. It would be odd if I didn't, since it set me on a different path from the one I'd thought I was on. It changed the arc of my days, as Guarino might have put it. I could easily have died. No arc at all, if so. I had images of knives come into my mind for a long time after. The one I carried, the one that had been used before my own.
I owe my life to Morani di Rosso. I light candles to his memory. He was a good man; I think it is fair to say any friend of Guarino's had to be. Morani was chief steward of the palace in Mylasia. He had accepted me on Guarino's recommendation. Which is why I was in the palace on the night Uberto the count, also named the Beast, was killed by the girl.
It seems necessary to say that though I was a pupil in Guarino's school it was not because my father had any rank at all. Guarino, the best man of our time I believe, when invited to open a school at the court in Avegna made it a condition that he be allowed to admit a number of lesser-born children-clever ones, showing signs of promise-to be educated with the sons and some of the daughters of nobility.
I was admitted that way. My father was a tailor in Seressa. I feel no shame in saying that. I know what he was, I know what I was, and am. The cleric in our neighbourhood sanctuary by the great canal was the one who noticed me. I had quickness, he declared, was a well-formed, well-mannered young man, had taken easily to my letters and numbers.
Tailors in Seressa (and elsewhere) do have a little status. They enter the homes and intimate chambers of the great, conversing with them at fittings, learning their needs (not just in clothing), sometimes guiding those needs. Ours is a time when public display matters. Most times are, I suppose.
At our cleric's urging, my father mentioned me to one of his patrons, a member of the Council of Twelve, then the cleric wrote a letter to that same man, and . . . matters were set in motion. I have a memory of my mother the morning I left-she saved a yellow bird from the cat. She chased the cat away, then turned and hugged me goodbye. I don't know if she cried; if she did, it was after I had gone.
I spent seven years with Guarino in Avegna. There is a bust of him now in a palace courtyard there, outside the rooms where the school used to be. The school has been closed for years. Guarino is gone, my father (Jad defend his soul) is gone, many of those who mattered in my life are. It happens if you live long enough.
In that school in Avegna I lived through and left my childhood. I learned to write with skill, not merely competence. To speak gracefully in good company and debate with clarity. To deal with weapons and the new form of accounting. To sing (with less grace, in truth), and to ride and handle horses-which became my joy in life.
I learned to address my betters properly and my equals and inferiors also properly, and to do so with at least an illusion of ease. I was taught something of the history of Batiara and of events in our own time-though we were spoken to carefully as to that last, because certain things were not said, even at the school. Towards the end, I was helping with the younger students. I was in no great hurry to leave that sheltered place.
Some of us learned to read texts of the Ancients. We learned of Sarantium in the east, the City of Cities, what it had been a thousand years ago, what it was now, and how the Asharites, the star-worshippers, threatened it in our time. We heard tales of emperors and charioteers.
Those languages and stories of the past, along with access to Avegna's palace horses, were a good part of why I stayed with my teacher longer than most. Those things, and loving him.
I had begun to think I might become a bookseller and bookbinder at home in Seressa where the trade was growing, but Guarino said I was suited to serve at a court, to use and share what he'd taught me. He regarded that as part of his task, sending men and sometimes women into the world to have an influence, guide others towards a better way to be, during a time when violent men were ruling and warring through Batiara and beyond.
Time enough to make and sell books later, he said-if you decide you want that. But first, take a position where you can give back some of what you have been given here.
He'd written a letter to an old friend, which is how Morani di Rosso and Mylasia came into my life. Morani offered me a position at the court there. The Beast's court.
We make our own choices sometimes, sometimes they are made for us.
I've thought often about what my life might have been had I gone home to Seressa instead and opened or joined in running a bookshop. My cousin Alviso had just started one, alongside one of the smaller canals. But Alviso hadn't been to the celebrated school in Avegna. He hadn't had that gift in his life. Opportunities given are responsibilities. They taught us that.
So, I went to Mylasia. There were and there are bad men ruling some of the larger and smaller city-states of Batiara, but I don't think many would dispute that Uberto of Mylasia was among the very worst in those days.
It was interesting, I suppose it still is, how vicious men can take power and be accepted, supported by those they govern, if they bring with them a measure of peace. If granaries are full and citizens fed. If war doesn't bring starvation to the walls. Uberto was a man who had sealed an enemy in a cask to see if he might observe the soul escaping when his prisoner died.
If men and women are to be killed we want that to happen somewhere else. We are like that, even as we pray. In these years, as hired armies go up and down the hills and river valleys, fighting for a city-state that's hired them or raiding for themselves, as High Patriarchs war with half the nobility and conspire with the other half, some have seen the conflicts of the great as sweet, seductive chances to expand their own power.
Villages and towns are destroyed by angry, hungry soldiers, then sacked again a year later. Famine comes, and disease with it. In times of hard peril, a leader strong enough-and feared enough-to keep his city safe will be permitted a great deal in terms of viciousness, what he does within his palace.
There was no secret to it. Uberto of Mylasia was well known for what happened in his chambers at night when the mood was upon him. There were stories of youthful bodies carried out through the smaller palace gates in the dark, dead and marred. And good men still served him-making their peace with our god as best they could.
Balancing acts of the soul. Acquiescence happens more than
its opposite-a rising up in anger and rejection. There are wolves in the world, inside elegant palaces as well as in the dark woods and the wild.
People sent their daughters away from Mylasia and the nearby farms in those years because Uberto was what he was. When young girls sufficiently appealing were not readily found, he had boys brought to him.
It was known, as I say. We'd heard the tales in Avegna. Some of the others at school, better born than I, had even joked that having women brought to them (no one joked about the boys, it would have been a risky jest) was one of the appealing aspects of power. They didn't talk-to be fair-about killing them, just the pleasures of a night, or more than one.
Uberto never had anyone brought for more than one night. Most of his guests survived, went home, were even rewarded with coins-given that marriage would be difficult for the girls, after, and the boys were shamed.
Not all left his palace alive, however. Not all of them did.
The first way I might have died that windy autumn night was if Morani had not sent me for wine by way of the servants' stairs when word came that the girl had arrived.
When someone was brought to the count at night, Morani took the post outside Uberto's chambers himself. As if he would not burden another soul with what this was. He had done so for years, apparently.
That summer and fall he liked me to stay with him before and after the arrival-but not when the girl or boy came up the stairs. This had happened three times already. That night was the fourth. I do not believe in sacred numbers, I am just telling my story as I remember it.
Outside the count's rooms Morani and I would converse of the wisdom of the past. I'd recite poetry for him, on request, while behind the door Uberto did what he did. We would hear things sometimes. Morani's face would be sorrowful, and I thought I saw other things in him, too. Mostly he would keep me talking-about philosophers, precepts of restraint, learned indifference to fortune's wheel. He'd drink the wine I'd brought up, but never too much.
He couldn't protect me from knowing what was happening, only from being part of sending someone in. He did have me stay with him after. Perhaps he found it hard to be there alone. Perhaps he thought I needed to learn some of the dark things about the world, alongside the bright ones. In certain ways, I have since thought, that is the condition of Batiara in our time: art and philosophy, and beasts.
Had I been standing beside him when the girl was led up the staircase between torches, had the guards who brought her seen me with him there, I'd have been held equally responsible, without any least doubt, for what ensued.
But they did not see me. Only Morani was there to greet her gently, usher her through the door after searching her, carefully, for any weapon she might have. The guards would have done so downstairs already, but as the palace's chief steward, Morani was formally responsible outside that door.
I was there, however. I did see her.
I had come back up with the wine flask already, was standing in the shadows on the back stairs, out of sight of the guards and the girl, but with a view of them. And so I saw who she was.
I didn't believe she'd have remembered me at all, had I been visible, but I knew her on sight. It hadn't been so long. And I realized, immediately, that something was wrong.
I did nothing, I said nothing. I let it happen.
Morani di Rosso's death is on me, you may fairly say. I owed him a great deal, I liked him a great deal. He was a kind man, and had small children, and I recognized the woman and still let things proceed to where they went, which included his execution and dismemberment in the square not long after.
I have often thought that the world the god has made-in our time, at least-is not generally kind to good men. I do not know what that says about me and my own life.
We accumulate sins and guilt, just by moving through our days, making choices, doing, not doing. His is a death for which I will be judged. There are others.
She saw the outline of a servant in the shadows of the second stairway. He held something, probably wine. He didn't matter. What mattered was appearing anxious for the steward, but not fearful to a degree that might suggest something to hide. She remembered to seem awkward in the good clothing they'd sent from the palace for her.
They had discussed this when the plan was conceived, when she'd agreed to do this, though Folco had made clear it was only a thought, an idea. He couldn't command her. Of course not. He'd said he was fairly certain this could work.
She'd believed him. He wouldn't send her to her death, not for Mylasia. Not for anything, really. Death would be something she could avoid while achieving what he wanted. She was a weapon for him, and no good commander wasted weapons. She was also his niece.
She'd said yes, no hesitation. She wasn't, by nature, inclined to hesitation. There were many reasons to agree. Uberto of Mylasia summoned children and killed them, for one thing. She wasn't a soft person, not given her own family, but Uberto . . . offended her. She had never killed anyone, so there was that, an awareness within her tonight. It wasn't hard to let the steward see her as anxious. She was. She smiled at him, tremulously. She was a good actress, it was a part of why she was useful.
Reading Group Guide
A Brightness Long Ago
Guy Gavriel Kay
Questions for Discussion
1. Kay sets this novel in Batiara, not Italy. He has dealt with slightly changed settings in this way many times, using a “near Europe” in history, not the actual places and people, even though he cites his inspirations in the acknowledgments. Why do you think Kay approaches historical places and figures in this way?
2. There are only small elements of the supernatural in this book, primarily passages involving the voices of the recently dead. Do you think this novel is best seen as fantasy? Historical fiction? How much does a label or category matter in your thinking about a book?
3. Is art meant to reveal truths or to send messages? Is this true for all works of art?
4. Do you believe that Guidanio betrayed Morani by not defending him from the mob? What should he have done, if so?
5. Women in Batiara don’t have a lot of options as far as what they can be or do. Jelena and Adria have both chosen to lead lives different from the norm. How similar is this to women of today who try to break the barrier of women’s expected roles?
6. Is there a character in the story you identify with most? If so, who and why?
7. Guidanio is offered a prestigious position in Monticola’s court as a tutor for his sons. If you had been in his shoes, would you have accepted the offer?
8. Before the horse race, Adria thinks, Men—or women—cannot control the world. Do you consider this true?
9. We eventually learn how the feud between the Acorsi and Remigio families began. Did finding out the truth about the feud change your perspective on or opinions about Folco d’Acorsi and Teobaldo Monticola? If so, how did your views change? Do you think one is a good person and the other bad? Do you think the author is making a point about this and how we make our judgments?
10. What are your thoughts on this quote? “Even so . . . we do turn the page, and can be lost again. And in that deep engagement we may find ourselves, or be changed, because the stories we are told become so much of what we are, how we understand our own days.” Do the books you love become a part of who you are?
11. Guidanio’s journey has led him to meet many important leaders and figures. Do you believe that his experiences with men such as Monticola, Folco, and the duke of Seressa were by chance, or have Guidanio’s own choices led him to these moments? Could it be a mixture of the two? Does this apply to everyone’s life?
12. When the golden city of Sarantium falls, Monticola and d’Acorsi put aside their feud and an impending battle to grieve and pray for forgiveness. If they had put aside their differences and hatred earlier, would they have been able to save Sarantium from falling? How powerful are they, really?
13. How do you feel about how each character’s story ended?
14. Guidanio narrates, “We like to believe, or pretend, we know what we are doing in our lives. It can be a lie. Winds blow, waves carry us, rain drenches a man caught in the open at night, lightning shatters the sky and sometimes his heart, thunder crashes into him bringing the awareness he will die.” Do you think we are choosing our paths in life?