Giovanni & Isabella
The Mermaid Taverna
The Next Morning
Giovanni Visits A House of Ill Repute
Niccolo and Poggio prepare
The Granduc of Genoa
Niccolo contemplates shooting Giovanni
Isabella's further thoughts
A noise from above
Giovanni's burning jealousy
The Conté's thoughts
Poggio to the rescue
Giovanni's puzzlement turns to suspicion
Niccolo and Poggio get ready to shoot
Shots ring out
The escape plan
Father Domenico's surprise
Giovanni and Domenico
Doctor Visconti's cellar
Giovanni pursues Figlio
The Conté's house
The chase ends
Such handsome customers are rare in her line of business, and so she has no qualms about following the tall stranger off the busy Lower Galleria to somewhere quieter, where they might enjoy each others' company without interruption.
He doesn't say anything—instead he communicates with smiles and gestures, which she finds mysterious and alluring. And also with silver coins in generous measure, which she readily accepts and slips into her purse, pulling the draw-string tight.
"Thank you, signor, you are most kind," she says, already calculating how much she will have to give to the greedy whoremaster and how much she can keep for herself, to add to her secret savings. When she has sufficient dowry she will return to Roma and find herself a handsome husband, who will never learn the truth about her past, and they will be married as her mother always wished, in a big church with all her family present.
The alleyway smells, but not too much, and is quiet and deserted, which is what Manuela wants. She turns to face him, her fingers already working at her dress buttons. "We must be quick," she says. "The curfew." Every arrest means a fine, and therefore lost savings. She slides her dress clear of her shoulders, all the while smiling at him, inviting him to partake of her.
The abrupt change in his expression shocks her. His twisted face, no longer handsome, no longer human, swells to completely fill her vision. She doesn't even have time to scream before his huge hands encircle her throat, cutting off all sound. As her world fades to darkness, Manuela's final thought is how disappointed Mama will be that she didn't get to attend her daughter's wedding in a big church after all.
The Cathedral tower bells chimed three-quarters of the hour, warning the three conspirators that only fifteen minutes remained before curfew. Waiting in the lengthening shadows by the cemetery gates, Niccolo cursed under his breath. The Bologna coach had to be late tonight, of all nights!
His friend Alfonso said, "We can't wait any longer. We must be gone before the Guard comes." The note of fear in Alfonso's voice ate into Niccolo's resolve. If they were caught outside after the Cathedral bells chimed ten o'clock then they would surely be arrested and Capitano Giovanni, damn his black soul, would demand to know their reasons for breaking curfew.
Behind them, Poggio gave a scornful grunt. He leaned against the cemetery gates with his arms folded and his hat brim covering his eyes. A sardonic smile curled his lips. "We have plenty of time. There's no need to soil your pants just yet." He sniffed the air theatrically. "Or have you already had a bowel movement?"
Niccolo rolled his eyes. He had hoped his friends wouldn't squabble tonight; he wasn't in the mood. "Have patience," he said to Alfonso. "Just another few minutes."
But Alfonso wouldn't shut up. "This place scares me," he said. "I don't like it."
Niccolo glanced back over his shoulder at the uneven sea of marble tombstones, headstones, mausoleums and winged statues visible through the tall iron gates. He admitted to himself that yes, the cemetery was an eerie place. But now was not the time for weakness. Their just cause demanded courage. And, if necessary, their lives.
"Everything scares you," Poggio said. "You should have stayed hidden in your mouse hole."
Alfonso continued talking as if he hadn't heard. "People say they've seen ghosts moving around in there after dark. Lost souls, doomed to wander the earth—"
"Quiet, idiot!" Poggio said. "We've got company."
Three men had entered the Square via the archway that led to the Queen's Stairs and the Lower Galleria. Their red berets made Niccolo think they might be students from the University taking advantage of the Lower Galleria's mid-week discounts, but as they drew closer he saw they wore sword-belts that crossed their chests.
"Who are they?" Alfonso said.
"Mercenaries," Poggio said. "Just keep quiet, little mouse, and they won't even know we're here."
"But what if they report us to the Guard?" Alfonso insisted, his voice rising even higher. "We should go, Niccolo. We should go now!"
Niccolo saw Poggio's lip curl and knew his patience with Alfonso was exhausted. And small wonder. If it was Alfonso's intention to show his support for their cause tonight then he was making a poor job of it.
One of the mercenaries sat down on the fountain wall, pulled off his boot, and shook it. He looked up at the mermaid statue, whose pouting lips hadn't blown water since Niccolo was a boy, and said something that made his comrades howl with laughter. Niccolo experienced doubt and despair in equal measure. Anyone coming in on the Bologna coach would likely bed down for the night at the Mermaid Taverna on the opposite side of the Square. They could come back and contact Sforza first thing in the morning, as soon as curfew ended.
He was about to suggest just this when the clatter of hooves and the rattle of wheels announced the coach's impending arrival. Only ten minutes remaining to curfew! If they met Sforza off the coach and went into the Mermaid Taverna with him to discuss their plans, they wouldn't be able to leave again till morning.
"Bad timing," Poggio said, echoing his thoughts. "What do you want to do?"
The coach rolled into the Square, the driver standing up and pulling hard on the reins to slow his team of six black horses. They stopped outside the Mermaid, snorting and nodding with relief that the long, dusty journey was over. The driver pulled on the brake lever, tied the reins and climbed down.
"Florenz!" he announced to his passengers. "Welcome to Florenz!" He lowered the steps, opened the door—and jerked back in surprise as a body came tumbling out. Niccolo craned his neck to see. Lying face down in the dust was a heavy figure wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a black cloak. His arms and legs thrashed about as though he were attempting to swim on dry land. The mercenaries gathered around him, amazed by the spectacle.
"What's going on?" Alfonso demanded.
"He fell out of the coach," Poggio said.
"Is he drunk?" Niccolo wondered aloud.
"Looks that way."
One of the mercenaries bent and offered to help the fallen man. Instead of gratitude he received a growled curse that impugned his mother's purity. The mercenary kicked the large figure, prompting a muffled wail. The coach driver protested, but then retreated quickly when the enraged mercenary drew his sword.
Abruptly Alfonso turned and ran off as fast as his legs could carry him. Niccolo almost shouted after him, but Alfonso plunged into a shadow-filled alleyway between two buildings and disappeared.
"The coward!" Poggio said. The rose-colored sunset revealed Poggio's angular face and highlighted the thin scar that ran down the left side of his face. That he hadn't lost an eye was something of a miracle. "Why did you bring him anyway?"
"He hates Di Castellano as much as we do."
"I truly doubt that," Poggio said, his tone betraying the depth of his emotion. Niccolo didn't want to argue. He concentrated instead upon what was happening across the Square. The other two mercenaries had hoisted the heavy man up off the ground and held him while the insulted mercenary described circles in the air with the point of his sword, his intentions obvious.
Niccolo stepped forward to intervene but Poggio's hand closed about his arm, stopping him.
"Damn you, Poggio—"
"You're a good and brave man, Niccolo, which is why I count myself lucky to be numbered among your friends. But there are times when wisdom must overrule the heart. This is such a time."
Niccolo realized he'd missed something significant. Another man had emerged from the coach while they'd been talking. He wore a short red cape over a white silk shirt, and purple bagaloons tucked into knee-length leather boots. Niccolo thought he looked like a gigolo. He'd drawn his sword and disarmed the mercenary in the blink of an eye, sending his blade spinning into the dry fountain basin.
"I should be obliged," the gigolo said to the other two men, "if you would unhand my companion. He is a little worse for drink tonight, I fear."
Niccolo could have predicted their reaction. The two mercenaries dropped the heavy man, drew their swords and lunged at the gigolo together. He casually tap-tapped their blades aside and stabbed once, twice. The mercenaries staggered away from him, each dropping his sword and clutching his arm. Something cold wriggled in Niccolo's stomach. The gigolo could just as easily have stabbed them through the heart.
"Pick up your toothpicks and go," the gigolo said.
The three mercenaries gathered their swords and scurried off into the lengthening shadows, not looking back. The gigolo sheathed his blade and bent down to attend to the heavy man. His courage in the face of such odds warmed Niccolo, who regretted his first appraisal of the man. This was no gigolo! His skills had identified him as none other than the legendary swordmaster Pietro Sforza, hailed as the greatest blade in all Italia—the very man they'd been waiting for.
Sforza looked up as Niccolo and Poggio approached. The heavy man remained face down in the dust, unmoving. Niccolo gave Sforza a polite half-bow and said, "Signor, I am most honored to meet you. I am Niccolo De Aqua. This is my friend, Poggio Di Medici." Niccolo indicated the Mermaid Taverna. "Perhaps we might help you take your companion inside?"
"I should be grateful," the swordsman said.
The cathedral bell rang the hour. Poggio elbowed Niccolo in the ribs. Niccolo followed the direction of his gaze and saw four Guardsmen climbing the Queen's Stairs, heading their way. Two carried pikes while a third carried a huge blunderbuss. The fourth Guardsman, bringing up the rear, carried a lantern on a long pole.
Niccolo and Sforza each took one of the heavy man's arms and pulled him up. It was by no means an easy task, but they got their charge through the Mermaid's doors before the patrol entered the Square.
The common room contained a dozen time-worn tables with chairs and benches. A blackened fireplace formed the centerpiece of the room. Oil lamps, already lit, hung from hooks on ceiling beams. A door led through to the kitchen and a crooked stairway to the left gave access to the guest rooms on the upper floor.
Vito Barca came forward, smiling and wringing his pudgy hands. His family had once served Niccolo's, before the Night of the Assassins changed everything. "Signor De Aqua, a pleasure," he said. "What may I do for you?" He stared at the unconscious man, bemused. At that moment Poggio opened the door with his boot and came inside carrying the bags from the coach. Barca glared at him, prompting Niccolo to recall that Poggio had once dueled with one of Barca's nephews some years ago. Niccolo couldn't remember what had sparked the fight—a woman, perhaps?—but Poggio had cut off one of the boy's ears, which had not endeared him to Barca's large family.
"My friends from out of town seek lodging for the night, Vito," Niccolo said.
As Niccolo had hoped, Barca promptly forgot about Poggio, at least for the moment. "Two rooms?" Niccolo looked at Sforza, who nodded. "For friends of Signor De Aqua, only ten lire for each room per night."
Niccolo fumbled for his purse while still supporting the semi-conscious man.
"I cannot let you pay, signor," Sforza said.
"I'm afraid I must insist, in the name of hospitality," Niccolo said, eager to earn the swordsman's approval. He passed the coins to Barca, who shouted orders. Three of his teenage sons, all big lads, hurried from the kitchen to bear the unconscious man's weight. They carried him to the stairs, grunting with the effort.
"They'll see to him, never worry," Barca said. "Supper for you and your friend, Signor De Aqua?"
Niccolo looked at Sforza, who nodded again, looking a little bewildered. "Thank you, Vito." Barca headed for the kitchen.
"We don't need a room?" Poggio said.
"I think if I ask him very nicely, Vito will allow us to sleep down here by the fire." Niccolo didn't want to risk asking Barca to provide a bed for Poggio. He might refuse, as was his right, which would entail his ejecting Poggio from his tavern, an event that was bound to attract the attention of the City Guard. If Poggio were not officially a guest, however....
"I look forward to such luxury," Poggio said, rolling his eyes.
"Better than spending a night in the cells," Niccolo reminded him.
Niccolo and Sforza sat down at a table. Poggio remained standing, watching the Square through the window. The Guardsmen were speaking with the coach driver, whose occupation made him exempt from the curfew. Niccolo turned his attention to Sforza. "Your arrival in Florenz was an eventful one, signor. I compliment you on your mastery of the blade."
Sforza shrugged. "Those idiots had been drinking. Their reactions were slowed by too much wine."
"Nevertheless, you did not know this when you challenged them. Tell me, what caused the delay?"
"The coach was stopped just outside the city."
Barca brought a bottle and two cups. He set these before Niccolo and Sforza, and poured wine into each cup. The bottle he placed beside Niccolo, as far away from Poggio as possible. Niccolo thanked him. Poggio stared at Barca's retreating back and for a moment there was murder in his eyes—but only for a moment. He smiled at Niccolo and said, "You needn't worry, I won't do anything foolish."
"I know." Niccolo sipped the wine, enjoying Poggio's envious look. "You said you were stopped?" he said to Sforza.
"Indeed. By uniforms just like those." Sforza nodded towards the window. Niccolo and Poggio glanced at each other.
"The City Guard stopped you? Why?"
"They demanded to see our travel permits. They said they were looking for Milanese spies. They arrested another passenger and took him away, despite his protestations of innocence." Sforza shook his head. "I don't envy the poor devil at all. They were not gentle." He emptied his cup and set it down. Niccolo refilled it for him. Now he felt bad about not being able to give Poggio a drink but he'd no wish to offend their host, Barca.
"Was Giovanni there?" Poggio asked.
"Who is Giovanni?"
Loud thumping noises came from upstairs. Niccolo wondered if Barca's sons had dropped the heavy man and he was attempting to swim on dry land again.
"Capitano Giovanni commands the Florenz City Guard," Niccolo said. "But surely you know this already?"
Sforza shrugged. "It's news to me," he said, confusing Niccolo.
"You'd recognize the swine by his uniform," Poggio said. "Giovanni wears more gold braid than all his men put together. He loves the stuff."
Sforza said, "I do not believe he was present. The soldiers were led by a huge brute with eyes like hot coals."
"That sounds like Sergenté Figlio," Poggio said. "The Conté's prize bull."
Niccolo thought that was an apt description. Figlio was indeed the largest man Niccolo had ever seen, and quite possibly the strongest. When the traveling circus had passed through Florenz last month, the strongman had challenged Figlio to a duel of strength. Figlio had won by twisting an iron bar into a perfect circle—around the strongman's neck.
Niccolo would have asked more questions but at that moment he looked up and all thoughts of Sergenté Figlio, Capitano Giovanni and the despised Conté Di Castellano fled from his mind. A beautiful angel had just walked into the common room. She carried a tray containing steaming bowls and crusty bread. Niccolo gaped as this dream vision swayed towards them. Her dark eyes fixed upon him and the simple act of breathing suddenly became very difficult. She set the tray down upon the table and decanted the three bowls and the bread plate. She placed wooden spoons and cloth napkins beside the bowls, then retired with the empty tray, glancing back over her shoulder once at Niccolo before disappearing into the kitchen.
"Didn't anyone ever tell you it's rude to drool in public?" Poggio said.
Niccolo's cheeks burned. He felt like a small boy who had no control over his thoughts or emotions. Who was she? Barca's daughter, or one of his nieces, or merely a servant? She'd smitten him just by looking at him. He resolved to ask Barca about her at the first opportunity.
"Nice of her to bring some for me," Poggio said, taking one of the bowls. He spooned stew into his mouth and immediately sucked in a sharp breath, fanning himself vigorously. "Hot!" he gasped.
There was no sign of Barca so Niccolo offered Poggio his cup. Poggio eagerly drank the wine then slid the cup back to Niccolo, nodding his thanks.
"I'll wager that feeding you wasn't Barca's idea," Niccolo said. The woman must have looked out of the kitchen, seen the three of them and assumed they were all supposed to have supper.
"Of course not. He'd put rat poison in mine, wouldn't he?"
"How do you know he didn't?"
"It tastes too good."
Sforza nodded agreement. They ate in silence. Outside in the Square the four Guardsmen moved on without paying the Mermaid or its customers any attention whatsoever. The coach driver climbed up into his seat, released the brake, shook the reins and spoke encouragement to his horses. The coach circled the Square, heading for the nearby stables.
More thumping noises and now angry shouting came from upstairs. Evidently Sforza's companion didn't like his room. The angel who'd served them supper came to stand in the kitchen doorway. She stared up at the ceiling for a moment, then turned her head and spoke to Barca in the kitchen while her gaze remained fixed upon Niccolo.
"She's making it a little obvious, isn't she?" Poggio said, keeping his voice low.
"I've never seen a star falling from the heavens before," Sforza said. He tore some more bread. "I should imagine that's what one looks like."
"She is rather attractive, in a peasant sort of way," Poggio said. Niccolo frowned at him and Poggio grinned. "I'm joking, of course. I'd be sniffing around her myself if not for the fact you're clearly interested. And then there's Barca to consider. The entire family would howl for my blood."
Barca emerged from the kitchen and headed for the stairs. He didn't quite make it before Sforza's traveling companion came thundering down the steps. Barca's sons followed close behind, trying to catch him. The man stopped when he saw Sforza. He waved urgently and pointed upstairs, while his mouth opened and closed repeatedly as if trying to find the right words.
An instant later he toppled sideways, bursting through the rail and landing on one of the tables, which gave way with a horrendous splintering of wood and a tinkling of broken glass.
Sforza got up and hurried to the man's side while Barca looked on, his expression one of utter disbelief. The three boys spread their hands helplessly when Barca looked to them for explanation. The heavy figure, lying on the collapsed table, groaned feebly.
"I didn't realize he was a circus acrobat," Poggio said.
"Perhaps we should we help?" Niccolo said.
"I don't want to have to carry the fool back upstairs. Assuming Barca permits him to stay, that is."
"He can't very well throw him out, can he? The curfew."
"He could call the City Guard and have him arrested for wrecking the place. They'll need a big wheelbarrow."
Barca came over to their table after talking to his sons. "Signor De Aqua, what am I to do? The man is an enraged bull in a pottery."
Niccolo realized Barca expected him to solve the problem. He might have tried to extricate himself from the situation with diplomacy but the woman was watching him. If Niccolo wanted to impress her then now was the time. He dabbed at his lips with his napkin, got up and went to join Sforza.
"How is he?" he asked the swordsman.
"Fetch a doctor," Sforza said with such certainty that Niccolo went to the door at once and wrenched it open, calling for the Guard. Footsteps echoed in the night and the same four Guardsmen who'd passed through the Square came running to see what all the fuss was about.
"A man has been injured in a fall," Niccolo explained. "We need a doctor."
"Do we look like messengers?" the man with the blunderbuss said.
Niccolo stared at him coldly. "What is your name?"
The man stuck his jaw out. "Corporalé Monti."
"The injured man is an important trader from Venice. If he dies there may be unpleasant political repercussions. Let me assure you that if this is the case I will personally present your name to the Conté and report your refusal to act."
Niccolo did indeed know Filippo, the Conté Di Castellano, though not quite in the way he pretended. Emotions played across Monti's face—annoyance, realization, then acceptance of the situation. He gestured to one of the pikemen. "Go to Doctor Visconti's house. Ask him to attend at once. Quickly now." The soldier ran off, heading back through the archway. Visconti lived on the Lower Galleria, close to his favorite bordello. Niccolo would have preferred to summon Father Domenico, who had the true gift of healing, but Visconti's house was much closer. Satisfied, Niccolo closed the door on Monti's scowling face.
Sforza still knelt beside his coach companion. Barca and Poggio stood nearby while the woman had joined Barca's sons at the bottom of the stairs. Niccolo glimpsed slim ankles protruding from beneath her black lace dress, and tried not to stare.
"This is terrible," Barca said. "Simply terrible."
"Doctor Visconti will be here soon," Niccolo said, trying to reassure him.
"I think it's too late for that," Poggio said.
Sforza stood up, unclipped his short red cape and draped it over the heavy man's head.
"But I heard him moan after he fell," Niccolo said.
"I think that must have been his spirit leaving his body. There's blood. His skull...." Sforza left the sentence unfinished and returned to the table, where he sat down and poured himself another cup of wine.
Barca looked distraught. Niccolo put his hand upon his shoulder and said, "I am sorry, Vito. No one had any idea this would happen."
"I accept this is not your fault, Signor De Aqua. There is no need for you to apologize."
The woman herded Barca's sons into the kitchen. She was a head taller than the oldest boy and her dress couldn't hide the bountiful fruit it contained. Niccolo looked away quickly when she glanced at him in passing. He chided himself for his lack of self-control, especially in such circumstances. But he couldn't stop himself from wondering if her ripe lips had ever been kissed in the moonlight.
"Nonetheless, I will pay for breakages," he said, hoping she would be impressed. "And if the gentleman lacks sufficient coin to pay for a funeral, I'll cover that also." Hopefully someone would come forward and claim the body once notification of the death was posted in Bologna. His purse was not bottomless.
"You are a good and kind man, Signor De Aqua," Barca said.
Good and kind. Poggio had called him good and brave. Niccolo would settle for handsome and charming. His newly awakened passion for the woman gave him the courage to say to Barca, "I hope this unfortunate accident will not upset your daughter."
"My daughter? Ah, you mean Madonna Maria. My wife's cousin's child." Barca looked around as if to ensure no one else could hear. "It takes more than a corpse to upset Madonna Maria! Did you know my wife's family comes from Corsica? They are a rough lot, although I would not wish my wife to hear me say so. Ten years ago they kicked the French out. Five years ago Roma tried to impose its rule, and they kicked General Bugatti and his army out. Last year the French came back, they are gluttons for punishment. There's been fighting going on ever since, which is why Madonna Maria is staying here with us."
"Ah, she is a victim of the conflict, poor thing."
Barca shrugged. "In a way, yes. The French have put a price on her head. She filleted one of their officers, who dared lay his hands upon her. She had to be smuggled to the mainland. Her family misses her of course, but we treat Madonna Maria as if she were our own child."
"Filleted?" Niccolo blinked. It had taken a moment for the word to sink in. "You mean she...?"
Barca nodded and drew his finger across his throat. "A terrible thing, but her honor demanded satisfaction. The French officer was fortunate. If Madonna Maria's brothers had gotten their hands on him, he would have suffered unspeakable agonies."
Niccolo might have asked more questions but at that moment the front door opened again and Capitano Giovanni entered the Mermaid Taverna. His gaze swept across the common room like a burning Sahara wind, touching Sforza, Poggio and Barca in turn before finally coming to rest upon Niccolo, who held his breath and hoped that none of his feelings for this dangerous man showed in his expression.