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Voice Of The Falconer

Voice Of The Falconer


Book excerpt

Prologue

Verona

Friday, 12 July 1325

“The Greyhound is dead!”

The news spread quickly, an inferno of desperate tidings. The great man had been traveling in haste to Vicenza – always Vicenza! – to head off yet another Paduan attack when he had taken suddenly ill and died.

All over Italy, Guelphs rejoiced the demise of their nemesis. In Padua the bells rang as if in victory, Treviso breathed a sigh of relief, and in Venice shares in shipping rose dramatically. Those cities embraced or conquered by him looked around at a world reshaped and wondered what would befall.

Within an hour of the news arriving in Verona, the inevitable crowd had congregated outside the Scaliger palace in the Piazza dei Signori, hundreds of men staring upwards for a sign, a signal. A savior.

On the north side of that same piazza, in the Giurisconsulti, the fourteen-member City Council shouted in fierce debate. “Why not hold free elections?”

“Because we have no idea who will step into the void!”

“The people will only vote for a della Scala!”

“Then we must decide which family members should be allowed to run.”

There were pitifully few choices. The ideal candidate, Cecchino della Scala, was dead, killed in a tournament mishap last February. There remained three nominees, none suitable, none of age.

“The damn fool! Never saw past his own delusions of grandeur, never took the elementary precaution of making a will!”

“Especially after Ponte Corbo, you’d have thought—”

“Shut your mouths,” snapped Guglielmo da Castelbarco the elder, a senior member of this council. “We have work.”

“Yes,” agreed Bernardo Ervari, an efficient functionary and Castelbarco’s friend. “First we must confirm his death. I’ve sent couriers and priests. The next thing we must do—”

“—is contact his wife, in Munich,” finished a tough, broad-shouldered fellow in a wine-stained doublet. His suggestion was met with covert smiles. New to the council, Petruchio Bonaventura was a man known for his wife as much as himself.

Castelbarco nodded as though that had been his intent. In truth, there was another message to send first, one he alone could write. For his fellows were mistaken. There was a will.

“Actually, Bonaventura, I say we let her live in blissful ignorance.” When heads turned his way, the short-statured knight called Nico da Lozzo opened his hands. “Fut! We all know what she’ll say. But Paride’s only ten years old. There’s no chance the people will accept him.”

“The people will accept whomever we tell them to,” observed a clean-shaven man in the miter of a Bishop and the cassock of a Franciscan.

Castelbarco tested those waters. “You’d nominate a child, your Excellency? The Church would endorse one so young?”

“It’s a more palatable option than—”

“Even knowing,” interjected Nico da Lozzo pointedly, “who would be pulling his strings?”

Out of the ensuing silence, the ruddy-faced Petruchio suddenly laughed through his unkempt beard. “At least the bride-thief and the cradle-robber aren’t here to add to our dilemma. I for one can do without the bickering.”

Their chuckles of agreement were suddenly drowned out by a roar that shook the walls. Bolting from their stools, the Anziani of Verona raced outside, praying it was all a mistake, hoping against hope to see the Greyhound restored to life.

Instead they reached the steps outside to discover the question of succession unpalatably resolved for them.

On the balcony of the new Scaliger palace stood three men, each as different as family resemblance allowed. The first was a whippet-thin man of middle years and middle height. Federigo della Scala, grandnephew to the first Scaliger to rule the city, shook his knobby hands above his head as if he had just won the Palio, the summer sun highlighting the silver in his hair.

The second man, only eighteen years old, was by far the largest of the trio. Oft mocked for his shambling gait, he was nevertheless well liked thanks to his liberal purse and generous smile. Alberto della Scala, called Alblivious by those who knew him.

The third man atop the Palazzo Nova stood apart from his cousin and brother, right at the lip of the balcony. He didn’t wave, didn’t smile. Darker of hair than the others, his face owned a handsome leanness. Flashing in the late afternoon sun, his eyes were a blue so dark as to be mistaken for black. Named for the first Scaligeri ruler, he looked down from the palace built by his namesake that was now, by the power of the people’s cheers, his.

Mastino della Scala. Sixteen years old last month. No one mocked him. Not ever.

The Greyhound was dead.

Long live the Mastiff.

ACT I

Ravenna

Saturday, 13 July 1325

Just as Giotto was ambivalent about his O – what could be simpler? – so the stars regarded the boy. Far below their winks and capricious tricks of fate, mortal men made the grave error of taking him at face value.

Corrado certainly did. In a side room of the church of the Frati Minori, he was standing with his back to the door, measuring a stone slab with his forearm, when a voice said, “He was shorter than that.”

Corrado jumped and spun round, sweat breaking across his brow. But the intruder was just a boy, hardly as high as Corrado’s breastbone. Backlit by the slanting sun, a few golden curls among the chestnut caught the light.

“Laid out, he measured five feet, six inches, but he stooped, so he seemed even shorter. That is what you’re trying to decide, isn’t it?” The boy strolled into the mausoleum, and Corrado saw with disgust that the lad was too pretty by half. Except for the eyes. They were unsettling, dancing green flecked with gold, a pale blue ring around them. Full of mirth, full of mischief.

Corrado shook a fist. “Beat it, brat, or I’ll beat you.”

Shrugging, the imp smiled, his mouth curling like an artist’s afterthought. The angelic perfection was marred only by a small scar beside the right eye. “Only trying to help. He was my grandfather, you see.”

Oh damn. Corrado had been told there were relatives living in the city, but hadn’t expected them to come visiting the body in the middle of the day. He stepped forward, fist high. “I said get out of it!”

Skipping backward on his heels, the boy laughed as if Corrado were a motley fool dancing for his amusement. “As you wish.” With a sweeping bow the boy vanished back into the sunlight, whistling as he went.

Listening as the whistle slowly faded, Corrado wiped the sweat from his eyes and muttered a blasphemous curse. Best get this done and go. Church parishioners were hard at prayer or gossip, and most of the friars were engaged in tedious holy affairs. But the little bastard could tattle, bringing his elders back with awkward questions.

Still, the boy’s information had been helpful. Knowing the size of the body, Corrado simply measured the slab covering the sarcophagus, two-thirds the thickness of his forearm. That done, he could do the calculations back at the inn.

Crossing beneath the side chapel’s huge wrought-iron candelabra, Corrado retreated into the church proper. To ward off suspicion he genuflected and pretended to pray. The Franciscans in their silly hoods went about their business, paying no attention to another scruffy pilgrim. A minute later he was out the door, dropping a copper coin into the devotion box as he passed. He was a satisfied man. The tomb was easily reached, accessible only from the main church, not through the monastery.

Which was a stroke of luck, as he’d been hired to rob it.

 

 

Taking care not to be followed, Corrado made his way to the Red Griffin Inn. Two miles outside the city walls, it was sparsely populated, with just a few drunkards on the ground floor, and no women except for a fat old wench with arms the size of tree-trunks who brought the ale and threw out any troublemakers.

Four armed men sat with their backs to the far wall. One pretended to doze, the others diced on a scarred wooden table. They didn’t signal to him, but each one caught his ostentatious rubbing of his nose. The job was on.

Ordering a stoup of wine, Corrado ascended the side stairs to the inn’s finest room and knocked.

“Entra!”

The room was well-appointed, with heavy tapestries and a carpet in place of rushes. The large windows were thrown wide to admit the midday sun, bright light illuminating the dust motes floating on the hot, oppressively still air.

Beside one enormous window, the room’s lone occupant was sprawled across a chair and foot-stool. Fully dressed in a fine doublet, light shirt, expensive hose, and tall leather boots, he was reading from some book and eating olives from a bowl. His sole concession to the heat was a hand-fan, very like a lady’s.

As Corrado closed the door behind him, the man kicked the foot-stool across, transferring his feet to the windowsill. “You sweat like a pig, man. Or is it something else? Tell me you weren’t seen.”

Sitting, Corrado decided not to mention the child. “No.”

“Good.” Dipping into the olives again, the fellow made no offer to share. “Your report?”

“The slab is six and a half feet long, two and a half wide, and eight inches deep. It looks to be fitted, which means an extension inside, probably another two or three inches. It needs all six of us.”

The dandy spat a pit out the open window and daintily wiped his lips. “Five, you mean.”

“You’re not coming?”

The question was evidently amusing. “Do I look like a hired hand?”

Corrado scratched his head. “I’m not sure we can do it with less. Can I—?”

“May I.” The correction was casual, automatic.

“May I—?”

“No. No local involvement. Five will have to do.”

Corrado watched the dandy suck down another olive, thinking how absurdly simple it would be to kill him. He wouldn’t be able to show his face in Tuscany again, but he’d be free. He could take the four men downstairs and build a band of highwaymen – maybe up by Verona, where the Alps forced travelers to a single path. Or else Spain. There was always a need for Italian soldiers in places like Aragon or Portugal. All it would take…

Corrado rose and made a show of pacing. “That means there’s no one can keep watch – it’ll take all of us to lift the damn thing. No way to keep the friars from ringing the bells if they find us out.”

“Cut the bell-rope before you begin.” Relaxed, the dandy fanned himself and thumbed a page of his book.

“Aye, that’s a start.” Pausing behind the dandy, Corrado drew a misericordia from his tall boot. Eyes on the dandy’s exposed neck, Corrado took two quick steps forward…

He was pelted by small wet objects, then something hard – the foot stool. There was a twist of his wrist, his knees buckled, and a moment later he was flat on his back, his knife no longer in his hand but pressed against his throat. The dandy had a boot-heel against his arm, and was grinding his knee into Corrado’s sternum.

“Corrado, Corrado. You’ve already incurred a death sentence. Why try for two?”

Corrado gasped. “I – I didn’t —”

The fan cracked across Corrado’s cheek. “Of course you did. I’m surprised it took you so long. You’re not the quickest hound in the pack, are you? You’re released from prison and imminent hanging with me as your only watcher. Remove me and you’re free. Now, how hard is that?” The knife didn’t waver as the dandy put more weight down on his chest. Instinctively Corrado sat up, causing the knife at his throat to draw a trickle of blood. “But you must remember, dear sweet Corrado, that you are not as swift as a cat, nor do you have sharp teeth for gnashing. You are a simple rat, with a skill for skulking. Whereas my nature leans far more towards the feline. And like a cat, I can play with my food before or after killing it. At the moment, I need your skills. But not so much that another offence will be tolerated. Understood?”

Vomit in his throat, tears in his eyes, Corrado didn’t move a muscle. “Yes.”

“Excellent.” The dandy rose, dropping the knife to the floor. Gulping down air, Corrado doubled over, clutching himself.

Retrieving his book, the dandy clucked his tongue over having bent the pages. Turning the chair upright, he settled his feet on the windowsill. “Gather your disciples, and prepare yourself to teach them the only lesson you know, my wormtailed – if not friend, shall I say at least comrade? For we are comrades, a fin, fin et demi. Tonight the very trade that condemned you shall give you life. Pray do not vomit on the rug. You’ve already caused it to be stained.”

Corrado touched his bleeding neck and pulled himself upright, his feet crushing the strewn olives into the fabric of the rug. His breath easing, he plucked up the knife and crept from the room. At the door he turned. “Where will you be, my lord, when we’re through?”

“Here, or out. Never fear. Our arrangement is solid. If you are successful, you shall receive the letters of pardon and be free to die again another day. Now leave me to suffer this unbearable heat. Oh, and Corrado – could you send the girl in? I’m out of olives.”

As Corrado departed, the dandy took a moment to adjust the open window – the window that marked this as the best room in the inn. Glass was so much more useful than mere shutters. It was a heartbreaking blow that fifty years earlier the Syrians had sold their secrets to Venice and not his own city. The whole of Italy was clamouring for glass vessels and baubles. What a monopoly the Venetians were building!

The maker of this particular crude window had not been Venetian. The beech wood ash and the sand were improperly mixed, with many large imperfections where the artisan had blown too hard or too soft. But it was sufficient to provide a reflection. Poor simple Corrado had chosen the exact wrong place to stand when he drew his knife.

The girl entered with a fresh bowl, and the dandy watched that same reflection as the girl bent over to clean up the squashed olives from the rug. She had splendid hips, and he imagined that backside of hers was as tasty as a peach. He thought he might call upon her later – or rather, insist that she call upon him. A fine diversion while Corrado plied his trade.

The girl departed and he returned to his book, a rather poor collection of poems. Just as he was losing himself in the second stanza, something in one of the bubbling imperfections caught his eye. Something moving on the rooftop further along the inn. Probably a bird.

Some minutes later, as he stood and stretched, he glanced out the window and noted the serving girl he fancied chatting with a child. He watched, amused, as they talked earnestly for several minutes. He could have leaned out the window to hear, but it was nothing of consequence. He had no liking for children.

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