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The Master Of Verona

The Master Of Verona


Book excerpt

Prologue

Padua

16 September 1314  

Ciolo’s nerves jangled in time with his spurs. During the whole ride they hadn’t seen a soul. Not on the road, not in the fields. No one at all.

“What does it mean?” asked Girolamo.

“I don’t know,” said Ciolo.

“Is Padua under siege?”

“I don’t know. Let’s keep going.”

“How will we get in?”

“Keep riding.”

“But…”

“Think of golden florins.”

“I’ve never been to Florence!”

“Shut up!” hissed Ciolo.

Empty fields gave way to empty suburbs. A few hovels and shacks were burnt out, but more were intact, even new – Ciolo saw fresh-cut timber struts and new bricks. Marks of an old siege, not a new one. If there were a present siege, by now he would have heard the sounds of hundreds of men muttering, cheering, or singing, impatient horses stamping, the crack and whine of siege machines, the smell of fire and filth.

The only smells were common night scents. The only sounds were crickets and the occasional goose or dog. There were no tents or firebrands, no bristling spears. The city wasn’t under siege. So where the devil was everyone?

Ciolo’s skin went cold with a horrible notion. A pest. A pestilenza had come and even now the Paduans were hiding in their homes scratching at scabs and vomiting blood. He glanced at Girolamo but said nothing. Thinking of the money, he put his dirty hand over his mouth to keep out the bad air and rode slowly on.

They approached the city’s north gate, crossing the Ponte Molino, an old Roman bridge the length of fourteen horses whose triple arches spanned the Bacchiglione River. The center arch was supported by two massive stone columns rising from the rippling water. Nearby mills creaked and groaned. Padua depended on the Bacchiglione for both commerce and defence.

The bridge ended at the lip of a fortified gate. Ciolo squinted hard. No bodies piled up outside. A good sign. But still there was no one in sight. Nudging his horse onto the bridge, Ciolo began to cross it. Girolamo followed.

Halfway across, Ciolo could make out that the gates into the city were open, but dark.

Girolamo said, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this job.”

Suddenly a flame appeared high on the tower before them. A torch. Two more joined it. At the same moment Ciolo heard a human noise. Thousands of voices, cheering. Men, women, children. Bells pealed and musicians played. All the people were inside the city walls, watching for sunset and the lighting of torches.

Sagging in his saddle, Ciolo mopped his brow. “See, it’s nothing. A celebr—”

The cheers were replaced by thunder as an army of horses poured out of the gate right in front of them. Plumed helmets and shining breastplates reflected light from the brands held high as countless Paduan knights emerged from the city, riding furiously across the Ponte Molino.

Riding right at Ciolo and Girolamo.

Abandoning his horse, Ciolo threw himself from his saddle and ran, arms pumping, to the edge of the bridge. He didn’t hesitate but threw himself into space. For a moment his arms flapped at the air. Then he hit the water feet-first, plunging below the surface. The sound of hooves vanished as the river swallowed him.

Not knowing how to swim, Ciolo lunged in the water, using his arms and legs as if he were running. His shoulder hit hard against something and he grabbed onto it as best he could. His fingers recognized the feel of stone. Whatever it was he grasped it and pulled himself along. It was slimy and slippery, hard to hold. He dug in with his fingernails. His lungs were beginning to burn. Then his hand emerged from the water and he pushed his head up and through and sucked down sweet air.

He was holding onto one of the arches of the old Roman bridge. Above him he heard the continued cascade of mounted soldiers.

Idiots. Wherever their enemy was, it wasn’t here. Why charge, then – in darkness, when a horse was likely to trip and fall? Ciolo had nearly been killed in a night charge once. The horse in front snapped a leg, killing not only its rider but the two riders behind him.

He could still hear the cheering in the city, and knew he had almost been killed for the sake of a parade. A show of honour, of skill. Fools. Sputtering and shivering, Ciolo mouthed a string of curses against whoever had come up with the notion of chivalry.

Hand over hand he dragged himself to the edge of the support. He was lucky that the Bacchiglione wasn’t flowing hard, and luckier that what current there was had been dulled by the mills. Otherwise he would have been swept clean away. For the first time he wondered what had happened to Girolamo. It was useless to call. If he’d survived, he’d meet Ciolo at the house.

It took Ciolo ten minutes to reach the river’s edge. Though the riverbank was solid, there was no way to reach the high gate from below. The only way was from the bridge. Ciolo took a breath and began to scale the cracked stone walls carefully. His wet fingers made it difficult. Muttering and cursing, he pulled himself onto a carving of some old god just below the lip of the bridge. There he stayed, waiting for the horsemen to pass. He squirmed until he found a position that freed his arms so he could wrap them around himself. His teeth chattered. Damn all Paduans and their stupid patavinitas.

The final horseman passed, with the citizens chasing after, cheering their fool lungs out. Twisting, he pulled himself up onto the bridge proper. No one stopped to help him. In fact, he was almost knocked over again by the press of the people. God, did he hate Paduans.

Dry land under him, he was swept along by a different kind of current as the mob wept with joy and pride. Blending in, he forced his chilled lips into a smile. The crowd was warming him up, and he was pleased when he realized how easy it would be to get into the city now. Knowing his own horse had probably bolted, he didn’t bother to look for it. He just played the part of happy citizen watching his army go off to glory.

“Fall in, did you?” asked someone with a grin.

“Y-y-yes,” replied Ciolo with a shrug. “Quite the fool.” He’d been to this city three or four times before. He’d even once been defended on some petty-theft charge by the famous Bellario. So Ciolo was able to fake the accent.

The thrill eventually passed and slowly the Paduans began returning to their homes. Recrossing the Ponte Molino with them, Ciolo made jokes and slapped backs, joining in the laughter at his obvious misfortune.

Halfway along the bridge he found the body of Girolamo. Ciolo recognized him from his vest, since his face had been crushed. Ciolo bent down quickly, but it was no use. He’d already been robbed.

Entering Padua, Ciolo joined a group of men heading for a tavern. He held himself to one bottle of wine, but sang with gusto and thumped the table for as long as it took for his clothes to dry. Then telling his new best friends there was a wench waiting, Ciolo took his leave.

He had a job to get on with.

A life to end.

Ciolo found the house, right where it was supposed to be. There was the hanging garden. There was the juniper bush. The house was frescoed with a pagan god holding a staff with two snakes on it. The deity stood between two barred windows and above two massive lead rings for tethering horses. Just as described.

The front of the house had torches burning, and Ciolo passed through their flickering light, walking drunkenly in case anyone was watching. He’d been told there was no possible entrance from the ground, so he didn’t waste time looking for one. Instead he circled the block until he came to a three-story wall outside a dyeyard. The wall’s covering plaster had worn away, showing a mix of round stones and proper bricks. It was dark in this street, the light from the stars the only illumination. Still playing the drunkard, Ciolo stood in the open, loosening the points on his hose and relieving himself. No one passed, not even a cat. Using his free hand to lean against the wall, his fingers quested. Readjusting his points, Ciolo rubbed his hands together and, having found the promised fingerholds, he began his ascent.

Along the top were curved spikes to keep intruders out of the dyeyard. But Ciolo didn’t want in. He wanted passage. Reaching up, he carefully wrapped his fingers around the inch-thick base of the spike. He didn’t put much pressure on it at first as it might be sharpened along its whole length, not just at the curve. But in this too his instructions were accurate. The flat edges of the spike were dull. Ciolo gripped the spike harder, praying it would bear his whole weight.

It did. Feet dangling, he swung his free hand up to grasp the next spike. Then the next. Hand over hand he passed down the row of spikes, around the shadowed corner between the two houses.

By now his breath was coming hard, his hands and shoulders aching sourly. But he only had another half length of wall to travel. He started on it, then froze as a noise came from the house behind him. Did they have dogs? Or worse, geese? Pressing himself against the high wall, his sweaty fingers slipping, wishing for a cloud to hide the stars and plunge him into deeper shadow, Ciolo listened.

It was a child. A child’s cry in the night. Unattended, it went uncomforted.

In a perfect world he could have waited for the child to sleep again. But his hands were losing their strength. He continued quickly down the final length of the wall, mouthing foul pleas not to slip.

The next move was tricky – he had to twist around until he was hanging with his back against the high wall and leap to a window across the four-foot divide. Doubling up his grip with one hand, he twisted around and threw out his free hand. It brushed past one bar but firmly found the next. Hanging now with his back to the dyer’s wall, he faced his target.

The arched window was open, the wooden door swung wide. Knowing the longer he waited the worse his nerves would get, Ciolo curled his feet up, released the bars, and kicked off hard.

His ribs banged against the windowsill and he hit his chin as he began to slip. Flinging his arms wide, he pressed his elbows against the interior walls. Feet scrambling, he pulled himself awkwardly over the sill and into the house. Graceless, but successful.

Crouching low, Ciolo found himself in a long hall, narrow, with a pair of doors on each side. He squinted until he was sure all the doors were closed. He felt like his breathing was making more noise than a bellows. If someone found him now he would be useless, his arms were shaking so fiercely.

But no alarums. No cries but the child’s, which were subsiding. Ciolo flexed and stretched, each second gaining him another breath, each breath easing his beating heart. His eyes began to play tricks on him in the dark. He imagined that the doors were all open, and twice he swore he saw movement. But each time he was wrong. Or hoped he was.

After three minutes of watching from the shadowy corner by the window, Ciolo was as ready as he was likely to be. Gripping the leather-wrapped hilt at his hip, he withdrew a dagger nine inches long.

Keeping well out of the faint light coming in the window, he made his way down the hall. The house plan Ciolo had memorized indicated he had not far to go. Down this hall, a right turn into a grand room, and up a single flight to a double door. Simple.

The hallway was tiled and clear of rushes. Ciolo placed first one foot, then another, so much on his toes that his boot heels hardly brushed the floor. He came to a pair of doors facing each other. Both were closed. Holding his breath, he picked up the pace past them. Nothing leapt out at him and he sighed, instantly cursing himself for the noise.

The second pair of doors were also closed. Again, everything was proceeding as planned. He forced himself to stop and listen. One flight up the infant was still making noise, but the rest of the house was still.

Fortune favours the bold. Creeping around the corner, Ciolo felt along the wall for the beginning of the stairs. Tripping would be bad. Most stairs creak at the middle, so Ciolo kept his weight to the far outsides of each step where the wood was unlikely to bend.

At the top of the stair there was another window, facing north. He could see the sliver of the moon, and it could see him. He crouched down, his back to the wall, and looked for the double doors.

There they were. Light from the partial moon just brushed their bottom edges. Inside, the child was neither wailing nor giggling. More of a string of burbling noises. Ciolo thought the room must be small because he could hear an echo, as if the child’s own voice was answering itself.

He waited, listening to the room beyond the doors. Was there a nurse waiting with the baby? Surely not, or else he’d be calmer. Or else she was dead to the world. And soon would be moreso. Smiling, Ciolo trained his eyes on the moonlight. He prayed to a merciful God to send a cloud, then on second thought redirected the entreaty to the Fiend.

Whoever heard his prayer, it was answered at once. The light crept away. Once it was dim, Ciolo moved swiftly. Lifting his knife, he grasped the handle to the child’s room and pulled the door wide.

Blackness within. Ciolo stood to one side of the doorway, pausing for his eyes to adjust to the more complete darkness. Still the child burbled. Squinting at the corner the noise was coming from, Ciolo thought he saw an outline.

Reversing his dagger from point up to point down, a stabbing grip, he stepped fully into the gap, one hand on the door frame to guide him. He was a professional. What did it matter that his victim was a child. He was certainly going to the Inferno already. One step. Two…

A sharp cracking noise made Ciolo wince. An instant later the breath exploded from his body. Confused, he found himself sprawled several feet back down the hallway. Something had hit him in the chest, hit him hard enough to stun him and knock him backwards. His free hand came up and found a thin line of wood protruding from his breastbone. His fingers brushed the fletched end absently. He whimpered, afraid to pull on the arrow’s shaft.

A hinge creaked as the second door opened. A shuttered lantern was unveiled and the light approached him, growing brighter. To Ciolo’s dazzled eyes it seemed to be borne in the hands of an angel. An angel all in white. The colour of mourning.

“Not dead, then?” asked the angel as she came to stand over him. “Good.”

Ciolo sputtered, the blood on his lips leaving the taste of metal on his tongue. “Holy Madonna...”

 “Shhh.” The angel set aside both the lantern and the instrument of his demise, a small trigger-bow. Her right arm must have been hurt firing it, for she used her off hand to take the blade from his unresisting grasp.

Behind her was another shape, a young girl clutching a baby. The infant Ciolo had come here to murder. He didn’t know if it was a boy or girl, it was too young to tell and he’d never asked. He wanted to ask now, but breathing was trouble enough. Still his mouth tried to form the words.

The woman shook her head. With a lilting accent Ciolo found beautiful, she said, “Say nothing except the name of the man who paid you.”

“I – I don’t…”

“Not a good answer, love.”

“But – madonna forgive me, but – it was a woman.”

The angel nodded but didn’t smile. Ciolo wanted her to smile. He was dying. He wanted absolution. “Angel, forgive me.”

“Ask forgiveness of God, man – not of me.”

His own knife flashed left to right in her pale hand. He made the effort to close his eyes so as not to see his life’s blood spill to the floor. With a choked whimper, Ciolo lay still.

The cloud above passed, revealing the stars once more.

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Voice Of The Falconer

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