“Bricks or are you still hoping for dragon scales?” In the dwindling light of the cellar’s lantern, Tedri selected another diamond-shaped floor tile.
“Bricks,” said Gino, “unless you’ve overheard anything about the scales.”
“You’re the maniaco.” Leaning down, Tedri pressed the tile into place, the fresh mosaic nearing the base of Gino’s wall. “You should know where to find both of them.”
“I’d have to step down for the bricks.”
“And whose fault is that?”
Gino shifted on the two stacked crates, the planks creaking and adding to the underground musk. “Forgive me, signore, for not being as tall.”
“Don’t you have a potion to fix that?”
“Not yet.” Gino wobbled, grunted, and steadied. “Buon Dio Tedri, hand them up, my back is through.”
“But you don’t give mine a second thought.” Retaining his stoop, Tedri reached for the diminishing pile of terracotta blocks alongside Gino’s crates. Without looking up, he plopped three into Gino’s waggling fingers. “Anything to keep you doing proper work.”
“Prego .” Still hunched, Tedri returned to the mosaic, his hands grimy and cold, his knees, back, and shoulders numb beneath a sweat-stained tunic and mud-smeared breeches. From above, Gino’s slap of mortar and smoothing strokes joined the clink of tile against tile as Tedri resumed his arrangement.
“Perfetto.” Gino flung his trowel into the bucket of mortar set between them.
“You mean finito?”
“Si.” Gino tottered off the crates. “You?”
“I would be if someone would get out of my light.”
With a snort, Gino lumbered along the wall, the brush of his hand against brick taking him out of the lantern’s faltering glow. Ignoring his brother’s hums of satisfaction and testing thuds, Tedri slipped the final tiles into place and completed the floor’s geometric pattern. He coaxed mortar into the seams then scraped off the excess, leaving the pieces to fuse and seal.
“Finally.” Straightening, Tedri kneaded the small of his back. He ceased his rub, however, when the lantern’s light danced around Gino and cast his brother’s shadow against a flawless stretch of brick. “What have you done?”
“I built a wall. Edge to edge. Top to bottom.” Dusting his hands, Gino gazed across his creation. “Just like it should be.”
“It should have space for a door.” Tedri struggled to his feet. “We were dividing the cellar, not cutting it in two.”
“That might have been your plan.”
“And what’s yours? To starve to death?”
“I’m going to walk out.” Gino poked Tedri’s chest. “And you’re coming with me.”
Tedri brushed Gino’s hand away and wished he hadn’t caught the manic glimmer in his brother’s eye. “Gino. You can’t—”
“I developed a better formula but the recipe requires one last ingredient, one that doesn’t fit into a vial.”
Tedri scowled. “And what’s that?”
While a long list of farfetched odds and ends swirled through Tedri’s thoughts, Gino pulled a bottle from the leather pouch hanging on his belt. The cobalt blue of the glass gleamed around a darker liquid sloshing inside.
“This concoction,” said Gino, “requires a certain level of desperation.”
Tedri massaged his forehead, the grit on his fingertips chaffing his furrows. “I’m going to throttle you for this.”
Shaking his head, Tedri plucked Gino’s trowel from the bucket. As he stepped up onto the crates, Gino grabbed arm.
“What are you doing?”
“Getting us out.”
Gino tugged him away from the bricks. “Let me try my way first. If it doesn’t work—”
Tedri shrugged off his brother’s hand. “It’s not going to work.”
“If it doesn’t work,” Gino snatched the trowel, “then you can tear the wall down. I’ll even help. But at least let me try.”
“By then the lantern will die and the mortar will be set.”
“It won’t matter,” Gino tossed the trowel back into the bucket, “I know the way out.”
“Like you knew how to make cannon balls into golden eggs?” Tedri stomped off the crates. “Like you knew your immortality concoction wouldn’t kill the cat? Like you were certain you’d found a cure for Signora Dioli’s fever?”
Gino held up his hands. “My salve worked.”
“God saved her, Gino, not you.” Tedri reclaimed the trowel. “But for some reason He won’t save me from your foolishness.”
Stepping back onto the crates, Tedri poked at the top row where the wall met the flagstone ceiling. Dry flecks of mortar chipped off and clinked on the tiles. He tried another section, one he imagined his brother had last laid. Once again, the trowel scraped hard earth and solid grains showered his boots.
Tedri staggered off the crates and eyed the wall. “What did you do?”
“I didn’t build it like papà showed us.” Gino‘s cheeks bulged with his grin. “I did something different.”
Tedri thrust the trowel at his brother’s all too easily punctured neck. “What did you do?”
Gino backed against the wall. “I had a theory and it worked.” He knocked the brick. “Solid as a fortress in half the time. I think it’ll be of interest to the marchese, don’t you?”
A quiver in his knees led Tedri down to the crates. Slumping on the creaking planks, he pitched the trowel to the floor. “We are trapped.”
“That was the idea.”
“Your idea, Gino, not mine.” Scanning the cellar, Tedri sought another route through the flagstones overhead, the rocky walls supporting their family’s villa, and the tiles he’d arranged. Plumb seams, tonnage, and layers of dirt offered no hole, no crease, no glimmer of escape to the casks on the other side or the dusk about to take hold of the outside world. “I bet we’ll run out of air before we starve.”
“We won’t do either.” Gino held the bottle between his index finger and thumb. A shake made the contents slosh.
Tedri peered at the glass. “I don’t care how thirsty I get, I’m not drinking that.”
“You’ve helped enough.”
“How’s wanting to knock you upside the head helping?”
“Desperation, remember?” Gino uncorked the bottle, the smell of vinegar, anise, and char blending with sweat, mud, and kilned earth. “It shouldn’t take long to see if it works.” Gino squared himself to the wall and brought the vial to his lips.
Lurching off the crates, Tedri grabbed his brother’s wrist. “Drinking that might kill you.”
“It might, it might not. Staying here definitely will so we might as well see what happens.” Gino swapped the bottle to his other hand and took a long belt of his concoction.
His throat bulged with one swallow, then two. Lowering the bottle, Gino wiped his mouth and stared into empty space. He cocked his head, though, and grunted as if recognizing things in the air.
Praying against the possibility, Tedri swiveled his brother to face him. “Gino?!”
Gino’s gaze remained vacant, his eyes focused elsewhere. A green tinge crept beneath the grime on his stubbly face and slipped into his greasy curls.
After a shake proved useless, Tedri slapped his brother, the blow bringing Gino back from wherever his brew had taken him. With a shudder, Gino pressed a hand against his stomach and blinked as if to clear his sight.
“It’s me Gino, I’m here.”
Gino’s head lolled and he scanned the wall. “Soon, I won’t be.”
“You’re going to be fine.” Tedri pulled him toward the crates. “Sit a minute and rest.”
Gino chuckled. “You make it sound like I’m dying.”
The icy notion chilled Tedri’s toes. “Are you?”
“No.” Gino slipped from his brother’s grasp and pointed at the brick. “I’m going for a walk.”
“You can’t go for a walk. You trapped us behind a wall.”
“You always think in such extremes. There may be a wall, but we’re not trapped.” Gino shoved the bottle into Tedri’s hand. “Watch and learn, brother.”
Cupping the smooth glass in his dirtied palm, Tedri made room for Gino’s next step. He stumbled back when Gino took another closer to the wall and the green tinge on his brother’s skin began radiating. A halo blossomed, the pale light surrounding Gino’s stout frame.
Raising his hand, Tedri squinted through his fingers to keep Gino in view as the light strengthened and lost its sickly hue. The sun-like scorching painted Gino and the wall in a pure white sheen, and forced Tedri to shut his eyes.
He didn’t open them again until the heat left his face.
When he did, the wall stood as it had before, but Gino had gone.
Drifting forward, Tedri touched the brick. The mortar felt cool against his skin, the terracotta firm. “Gino?”
“Tedri?” The wall muted Gino’s voice.
“Where are you?”
Gino laughed. “Come and find out.”
“Why don’t you go get help and knock this wall down?”
“I don’t have to, Tedri. It worked. Just trust me and drink.”
Tedri rested his head against the wall. The last sputter of the lantern’s flame made the bottle in his hand waver, like a serpent, a snake, or dragon scales, and his gut roiled at the imagined flavor of the concoction inside. “I don’t know if I can do this, Gino.”
“I know you can. I know you will. But you must hurry.”
“I’ll…try.” As the lantern’s light flickered out, Tedri clenched his eyes shut. After swallowing a lump of fear, of cowardice, of despair, he whispered a swift prayer. “Deliver me, Lord, from this darkness, and let me see that maniaco of a brother once more.”
Tedri’s hand trembled as he tipped the concoction past his lips and poured the tart flavors into his mouth. The acidic tang and undertone of blood coated his tongue and he forced himself to gulp before gagging or spitting out what might be his salvation or, he considered, his swiftest route to hell.
With a hand and his forehead braced on brick, Tedri kept his eyes shut while the concoction seared his insides. The heat pressed against the underside of his flesh and melted like wax along his bones. His hair seemed to alight, his tunic and breeches to burn, his leather boots to puddle around his feet. Fire seemed to course through him except for where his forehead and palm touched the wall.
Then, the touch of brick against his skin vanished. The sensation of a wall before him disappeared. A force nudged his back while Gino beckoned.
“Now, brother, you’re ready.”
Unwilling to open his eyes, unsure of what lay ahead, and uncertain of what power ran in his veins, Tedri stepped into the emptiness before him and prayed he’d once again see the light.