Writer, musician, educationist
Writer, musician, educationist
SONG FOR A SPY
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Meanwhile, as we head towards the end of Song for a Spy, readers may like to sort fact from fiction: who's real, who's imaginary, and was Bologna really sufficiently enlightened to abolish slavery as early as 1256? (The answer to the last question is, amazingly, yes). Click to read the author's Historical Note.
Back into the fire
But I had taken the girl by the arm, and led her into the room where I had just been discussing strategy with my master. Then I closed the door, so that we were alone. "Now," I said to the girl. "Believe me, I am Lorenzo, the one you seek. Tell me, what news of the Lady Livia?"
"Oh sir," she said. "Let me explain. I am Laura, and I serve Signor Lambertazzi." A memory stirred at the back of my mind. A blonde girl – was the name familiar? I recalled a conversation about a kitchen slave whom Massimo Lambertazzi liked to bed.
"Laura, you say? Are you perhaps a - how shall I say? - a favourite of Signor Massimo Lambertazzi?"
She snorted in derision. "A favourite?" She laughed harshly. "If you mean does he take me to his bed, then you are right." She coloured. "But do not judge me, sir. An owned woman may not choose how her master uses her. He thinks me fair, and sometimes I consider putting my face into the fire so he no longer thinks so. But… I lack the courage." Her voice cracked.
"I'm sorry, Laura," I replied. "Of course I do not judge you: I have learned a little of the world. And you are pretty. I do not blame Lambertazzi for finding you attractive, though I vow that one day I'll kill that man for all the wrong he has done, including the way he has misused you."
"Oh sir," it was as if her tidings were bursting out of her. "He’s about to do still more wickedness. Yes, he’s a monster, and it is the Lady Livia to whom he will do harm."
At last we were coming to it. "Tell me," I urged. "Is she in danger?"
"Sir, she’s the only one of that family who has ever shown me kindness. When she was younger, and I was only a few years older than her, I served her as maid and playfellow, before I was sent back to the kitchens - and summoned to the Signore's bed when it suits him. But she has always remained kind to me, when she could be. And now, now her uncle is determined to destroy her."
"Destroy her? How?" I demanded.
"It is your fault," she said. "Your fault entirely. I don't know how you have bewitched her, but she has done something foolish, and it’s all connected with you. What else can I think but that you have some kind of hold over her?”
"I was imprisoned by Lambertazzi and Bardi," she made a face at the second name. "And it’s true that the Lady Livia released me - though at the time she thought her part in my escape would not be discovered.
"I heard something of that, sir," she replied. "There was talk of a prized prisoner. I heard the Signore screaming at my lady that she had betrayed him and he would repay her in full. I did not know what that meant until my lady told me, just now. She was desperate, sir, and bade me find the lawyer's house down by the river and ask for you."
"I told her to send for me here," I explained. "If she ever needed me."
"She needs you now, sir. The Signore is going to give her to Bardi. She says he will give her to him, and insist he takes her by force. And then she will be married to him. But..." she faltered.
"What? Tell me what more."
"This evening, sir. I don't know fully what he plans. But it will happen tonight. And I think the two of them will shame her in some way. And then she will be Bardi's plaything, to do what he likes with. She will never escape that family."
"She told you all this? What does she want me to do? I'll do anything she asks, you know," I added, somewhat lamely.
"She just said that she had little time, that they would do it tonight after dinner, and she might as well end her life. But then she said to me, 'Go to Lorenzo. Tell him he said he would come for me: and now is the time.' They will punish me if they find I have come: they will take the skin off my back, for sure. But I risk this for my lady."
She reached out and took my hand, a bold action in a slave. "Do not let her down, sir. She is strong, the strongest person I have ever known. But this will destroy her. And I fear for her, I fear something worse than even she has imagined."
"What? How can it be worse?"
"Sir, Bardi is looking forward to taking her maidenhead tonight. She... I know she is no virgin. I think you may know that, sir, too." She looked me straight in the eye, so knowingly that I blushed and hung my head. "I thought so: though you were not the first. I fear that will make their vengeance still more terrible. Sir, you must rescue her. I don't know how: but she needs you, and you must get her away from that family."
"I will," I was instantly determined, on fire with passion and obsessed by the thought that the beautiful girl whom I had worshipped from afar and whose flesh I had known intimately was being given against her will to Bartolomeo Bardi, the man I detested almost as much as I hated his master, Massimo Lambertazzi. "But you will have to get me into the house: otherwise I will not get past the gate."
"I will, sir. I believe I can get you in. I know you serve the lady lawyer: can you perhaps bring some papers, a quill and some ink? I will convince them that you are a scribe come to do some work for another of the family. And you’ll have to remove that mask if we are to fool them."
"Of course," I replied. I was not sorry to reach behind my head, untie the thong and discard the uncomfortable mask. Next I reached into the corner of that very room and seized the scrip I usually carried when assisting my master. "Let us go now."
I pulled open the door, and ushered Laura out into the courtyard. The members of the household, even the master and Sordello, had been crowding around the door, waiting to discover what was so urgent. "It's Livia," I said shortly. "Lambertazzi is giving her to Bardi, tonight. I'm going to save her."
"Don't be a damned idiot," retorted Sordello. "On your own? Back in that household? You’re begging to lose your balls if you go back a second time – or your life."
I pushed him aside roughly. "It's no use arguing," I said. "She's called for my help. I have to go."
"Dear God!" I heard my master's voice behind me. "Is Lorenzo dashing off madly again? Someone stop the young fool!" But there was no stopping me. Pushing Laura ahead of me, I was out of the gate and we were hurrying up the road towards the Lambertazzi towers. I knew I left a commotion behind me, but I did not look back.
I was determined, and heedless of danger. Was it love that drove me? Or lust? Or just a foolish notion that I could play the hero, save the maiden and win her devotion? I fear it was a mixture of all three. Certainly I had no plan in my mind: sheer wild emotion drove me as we hastened along the street to our destination.
We swiftly reached the Lambertazzi towers and, in my headstrong determination to save Livia, I headed straight for the gate of the highest tower, the building in which I had twice been imprisoned. But Laura pulled me to one side. "Not that way," she whispered. "They are too watchful there. Besides, it is not in the Signore's tower that it will happen." We skirted the first tower and passed another until we reached the third of the four that comprised the Lambertazzi consorteria.
We gained entry without incident: the men on the gate took little interest in an earnest-looking scribe, hooded to shade my bruised face and waving my writing materials at them. Then we embarked on the laborious climb to the top of the tower. "This was where my lady's parents lived, when they were alive, the Signore’s brother and his wife,” announced my guide. “And it is where Bardi will live with his new bride – or whore." We must have reached the highest room, just below the roof, when at last Laura turned off the seemingly endless stairs. The apartment was richly furnished with a table, three or four stout, carved chairs, and a fine bed against one wall. It boasted rich hangings on its three sides, matching the tapestries that covered most of the walls. "Hide yourself here," she hissed. "They will bring her to this room. This is where they will do it, shame and entrap her. You must prevent it."
"But where can I hide in such a small room? Besides, what can I do against two strong men?" I was beginning to appreciate the enormity of what I had undertaken, and the near-impossibility of keeping my promise.
"How do I know?” she snapped, her ingrained subservience momentarily forgotten in her anxiety. “My lady seems to think you can work miracles. So work one!" She pushed me into a niche on one side of the room: there was a door which, I guessed, must lead onto one of the many wooden links between the towers.
"What if someone comes through this door?"
"They won't," she replied. “They rarely come from that tower. They’ll bring her in through that door there," she nodded to a similar doorway on the other side of the room. "The Signore has been keeping her locked up in his own tower, which is how she could speak to me. I must go before I am missed." Again she looked me in the eye. "Do not fail my lady." And she was gone.
Once more I was left alone at the top of a Lambertazzi tower, without any clear idea of what to do. But this time I was not a prisoner: I was armed with my knife; and I was determined that no harm would come to the Lady Livia Lambertazzi, even if it cost me my life.
I laugh at my young self now, as all old people must do: laugh, or cringe in embarrassment, or perhaps a mixture of the two. But I was hot-blooded, in love with not one but two women, or at least with the idea of them; and, notwithstanding some of the ordeals I had already endured in my short life, I still possessed that bravura peculiar to the young that convinces them that they are somehow invulnerable.
It was not long before I heard a creaking sound from beyond the door in the next wall. I had crossed enough of those bizarre walkways between the towers of the great families to know that it signalled the arrival of at least one person, though the noisy complaint of the timbers suggested a significant weight. Sure enough, the door was flung open and crashed back against the wall of its niche. The great bulk of Massimo Lambertazzi, that central figure in my canon of hatred, heaved himself through the door. He was pulling something, or someone, behind him. Then I could see that he held in his right hand a rope tying two delicate, white female wrists, instantly revealed to me as belonging to Livia.
As always my heart leapt for passion and longing – and then in alarm for her, for he was indeed dragging her unwillingly into the room. Instead of one of the finely embroidered costumes in which I had always seen her previously, she was clad only in a thin shift, finely stitched, yet sheer and flimsy, almost transparent against the light of the window.
His captive fell to her knees, her hands perforce stretched out towards her uncle, who still grasped her bonds: yet it was also an attitude of supplication. "Please, Uncle. I beg you..."
"Enough!" I knew that voice and its tone of fury. Indeed, I had rarely heard any other tone but anger from that enormous body. "I have indulged you, Livia. I have pampered you, laughed at your whims and your airs, and loved you as a daughter. And this is how you repay me. I will not suffer treachery – not without retribution."
"But, Uncle." It was still recognisable as the voice I had heard, that of a spoilt and petulant child, yet now there was a hint of desperation added to it. "I did it for love of you. I feared that the lawyer would seek vengeance if you mutilated her servant. She is a dangerous woman: I feared for you, Uncle."
"You did nothing of the sort, Livia. I do not understand that strange mind of yours, but something made you let that boy go, in defiance of my wishes. Perhaps you desired him? Did you? Did you pleasure him? I hope you did not. For your sake I hope Bartolomeo finds you a virgin. I should not like him to be disappointed in his bride."
"Of course not, Uncle.” I admired her coolness at that threat. “But Bardi? Why must it be him? I thought you would find me a suitor from one of the other great families."
"Because you have disappointed me, Livia. Because I can at one stroke reward my faithful servant and teach you the need for obedience. Besides, you should be honoured: he comes of a great family in Florence."
"And is an exile on account of his own treachery there. I will not marry him."
I could not clearly see what was happening from my hiding place, but I heard a smack as, I surmised, his right hand connected with her face. "Enough. You will do as I instruct you. And you will do your duty in giving pleasure to my friend and loyal counsellor Bartolomeo. If you do not," I could just see Livia from my hiding place, and now saw her uncle’s right hand knotted in her hair as he pushed his face close to hers, "If not, I promise you this. You will wear a hempen collar and become a slave in the kitchens. And there you will oblige all the men who care to use you. You know I will do this, Livia. Do not defy me. "
There was no answer beyond a sob. It was clear that even Livia's repertoire of entreaties and manipulations had failed. "But if you please Bartolomeo, satisfy him and obey him, at the end of a month you shall be married. He will become a member of our family, you will be a dutiful wife, and no shame will come to you. Such is my forbearance: seize the opportunity I offer you for redemption."
There was a pause, the silence broken only by Livia’s tears. Then Lambertazzi spoke again. "But first, there must be punishment." Again, Livia started to speak, to entreat, but was cut off. "There will be pain. Bartolomeo will assert his authority before he possesses you. He will tame you. You will learn a lesson. And I will see it done."
Rescue and revenge
Livia cried out as he dragged her further across the room and hauled her to her feet, still by the rope binding her wrists. Reaching to the bed, where the frame supporting its hangings was attached to the wall, he looped the rope around it. He was almost at full stretch so that, once her hands were secured, she was on tiptoe, stretched uncomfortably, helpless, entirely vulnerable.
Lambertazzi ran his hands down her back and felt the roundness of her bottom through the shift. His fury seemed to have left him, and his voice dropped to a contented rumble. "I had thought to enjoy you myself, to make that your punishment." Still he fondled her behind, stroking and feeling it with his enormous hands. "But such things are not good within families, and give rise to scandal. Besides, sometimes one must make sacrifices for a friend: and Bartolomeo will consider himself well rewarded. So, now we are ready for him."
Livia remained silent. Lambertazzi lumbered across to the door, opened it and bellowed down the stairs. "Laura! Here! Where is that blonde bitch?" he added, muttering to himself. Soon enough came the sound of her footsteps up the stairs. Breathless she entered the room, bobbed a curtsy and said, "I'm here, Signore."
What was I to do? When should I intervene? I stood, concealed, as if spellbound by this bizarre, horrific scene that seemed set to take on still more nightmarish proportions.
The door through which Lambertazzi and Livia had appeared opened again, and there was the other focus of my detestation, Bardi, dressed as always head-to-toe in black. He ignored the girl stretched against the wall, but bowed to Lambertazzi, who greeted him warmly.
“Ah, Bartolomeo. Here is the girl, my gift to you. I trust she will please you: she knows what will befall her if she fails.”
Livia remained silent. "As always, Signore, you are excessively generous to me," Bardi replied with another bow, that oily, silky voice making me shiver as it always had.
"Nonsense, Bartolomeo. This is the least I can do for you. Yet,” his tone changed to one of menace, “The girl must be punished before you have your pleasure. She must suffer for the wrong she has done, and learn obedience. She is ready. The whip is on the bed." Livia gave vent to a gasp of dismay, but Bardi seemed unaffected.
For the first time he turned to her. "Livia, beautiful lady," he murmured. "Your pain will hurt me, too. Yet a woman must understand who is her master, and it is my privilege to teach you that lesson." She said nothing as he put his hands to the hem of her shift and slowly lifted it up above her beautifully rounded bottom, to her shoulders and over her head, tucking it under her chin so that her entire body was exposed. Gently he ran his hand down her back to her buttocks. "Only a few moments of pain, my lovely one," he continued, "And then the pleasure of man and woman conjoined." His voice fell to a whisper, caressing her ear. “I have desired you for many years. This night will be memorable for both of us, when I show my love for you.”
In a tiny voice, Livia whispered back: “If you love me, then why would you hurt me?"
“Because your uncle insists: and because a woman must learn obedience. The lesson will be valuable for you, Livia. You are wayward, but I shall correct you, out of love. Be brave for but a few minutes: then I shall bring you not pain but pleasure. It is the price of your becoming mine.
“The price?” Her old spirit returned to her as she spat out her reply. “It is I who will pay that price – and pay it dearly – when I suffer your correction. I despise you.”
His face contorted with anger. “Then I shall derive as much pleasure from that correction as from taking possession of your body afterwards.” The normally smooth voice now hissed: “Make no mistake, my lady: I shall bend you to my will.”
“Get on with it!” There was urgency in Lambertazzi’s voice as a strange noise came from the other side of the room. From my hiding place I could just see, around the other side of the hanging covering my niche, his gross figure standing against the wall. In front of him knelt Laura while his enormous hands almost obscured her head, which he was moving ungently and rhythmically, backwards and forwards. To my astonishment I realised that he was using her for his gratification while he witnessed his niece's torment.
There was a crack and I nearly betrayed myself with the start I gave. Bardi had brought the whip down across Livia's back, its impact leaving a red mark on that flawless white back. She made barely a sound. A second time he struck, and this time she screamed, unable to stifle her reaction to the pain.
I could no longer contain myself. Pushing aside the hanging I strode across the small room and, as Bardi raised the whip for a third stroke, I grabbed his wrist and tore it from his hand, turning him round and punching him on the jaw. He staggered back against the wall as I reached to my belt and drew my knife. "Bardi," I snarled. "This time you pay." How melodramatic I was, and how ill-prepared! Leaning back against the wall, he kicked me in the stomach, propelling me across the room, back into my niche where I flailed and became entangled with the hanging.
As I righted myself, I saw to my dismay that Bardi was holding a sword: I had not noticed that he was armed. Lambertazzi stood as if stunned, but Bardi's voice cut across the silence. "Signore, get away from here. I will deal with this intruder. And this time the celebrated jurist’s choirboy will receive no second chance." Lambertazzi pulled away from the girl kneeling in front of him, slapped her across the head to get her out of his way, pulled his robe together and heaved himself through the doorway.
"So, Lorenzo." Bardi’s voice was still even, urbane, and he smiled as he spoke. "You have returned. Is this an attempt at some kind of heroic rescue? Perhaps it is true then: did you couple with Livia the night she released you? I hope you satisfied her, that it was worth what you and she will suffer. For I shall gut you now, and while I take my pleasure with her she can watch you die, slowly and in agony." Livia made not a sound, her forehead pressed against the wall, but I could see the grief and pain wracking her body as her naked shoulders heaved.
Bardi advanced on me, and I backed away, but in so small a tower room I had retreated only three or four paces before I could go no further. I pointed my knife towards him, puny and ineffectual as it looked in comparison to his sword, and used my left hand to pull the hanging from over the door. Its fixings parted easily, and I wrapped it around my hand to form some kind of shield while never taking my eyes off Bardi's face. "That won't help you," he said as he smiled and then leapt at me, feinting once, then twice and then slashing the blade across at head height.
In all that practice with Sordello, I had never faced a sword: but the room was small and Bardi could not make full use of the swing of the blade, while my training was in fighting up-close, hand-to-hand. I rolled under that sweep and stood again, keeping one of the corners of the bed, with its upright and hangings, between us. He swung again, but this time the bed limited the arc of his stroke and, using my improvised shield to protect my left arm, I pushed out towards his sword and ducked in under it. I jabbed my knife at his right arm and caught his hand, causing him to cry out and to drop his weapon as his blood sprayed.
My movement carried me into him and my right shoulder caught him in the stomach. We tumbled to the floor in a confusion of arms and legs. I managed to hold onto my knife, and, as I rolled away and regained my feet, he scuttled across the floor, on the point of seizing his sword once more. The small blonde figure of Laura interposed itself: she kicked the blade away, out of his reach and across the floor to me. As I picked it up, he regained his feet. This time it was I who was smiling, but he seized Laura and held her in front of him as a shield.
"She’s no use to you as a shield, Bardi," I sneered. "I’m double-armed, and you are at my mercy." He said nothing, but flung Laura across the room towards me. It was all I could do to avoid impaling her on one or other of my two weapons and, as I flung my arms to the side, she crashed into me, knocking us both off our feet. The door banged shut, and Bardi was gone.
Laura and I were left sitting on the floor, both staring at the naked figure of Livia, two red wheals beginning to show on her back. Laura was instantly concerned. Leaping to her feet and rushing over to her, she quickly pulled Livia's shift over her head and allowed it to fall down her back, covering her marked flesh. "My poor lady," she crooned as she stroked her hair, "My poor lamb." I picked up my knife from the floor where I had dropped it and cut the ropes that held her mistress’s hands above her head. Livia turned to me and said simply, "Lorenzo. You came."
I shrugged: "You sent for me."
“I hoped you would: but I wasn't sure. I have been wrong about many things." Her voice was as normal and unforced as I had ever heard it. Gone were the petulance, the wheedling and the coquettishness. My heart was full and I wanted to – wanted to do what? In truth, I was unsure. To hold her? To make love to her? To be angry with her for putting herself at risk? It was all of those, and none. So I shrugged again. Then I realised that matters were far from resolved.
I turned to the slave. "Laura, you must take your lady to safety, before those bastards return with help. Take her back to my house, give her to the woman lawyer, the one we call the Magister: to no one else, you understand? The men at the gate will let you in. They know you now. Take her now and…" I reached up and tore down one of the hangings from the bed, tenderly wrapping it around Livia's shoulders. "Keep her warm. Keep her safe. Can you get out of this house without trouble?"
"I'll find a way. Thank you, sir. You have saved my lady."
"Go," I said. "I have two men to find and kill."
In truth I did not know which of the two I wished to kill more. But my heart was hammering, my blood was up, and I wanted revenge on both: revenge for what they had done to me, what they had threatened to do to me, and what I had only just prevented them from doing to Livia. They must be made to pay.
I held the door as Laura, one arm around her, the other holding one of the many candles that had lit the room, shepherded Livia to the stairs and down the first flight, cooing to her comfortingly as they went, their bare feet making barely a sound on the stairs. They made an odd pair: but it was dark, and I prayed that the streets of Bologna would be quiet and that their passage would attract no attention.
I was unsure where to go next, but reasoned that Lambertazzi would have hastened to the safety of his own tower, even if he had been obliged to take a circuitous route. So, reckoning that I might as well be fully armed, I picked up Bardi’s sword and opened the door through which they had all entered. Even under my slight weight the bridge shook, illuminated by the usual torches at each extremity, and I traversed it as quickly as I could. The door at the other end was unlocked, so I seized the torch from above the door and found myself in a tower that was strange to me. Guessing that Lambertazzi would have to climb in order to reach his loftier retreat, I found the stairs in the corner of the modest room in which I found myself, and started up them.
To my joy, I rapidly found myself in the well-appointed chamber where I had sung with my hastily assembled troupe of musicians only days before. I opened the door I remembered and looked across the wooden span. Sure enough, there was Massimo Lambertazzi's own tower, some three or four storeys stretching above the connection from these inferior edifices. I was just starting on that crossing, a path which had so nearly proved fatal to me on two previous occasions, when I was hailed from the third tower, to my right.
On the top of that shorter building stood my friends Paolo, Giacomo and Salvatore, waving their torches and hallooing. "Lorenzo!" shouted Paolo. "Thank God you're alive! We thought you'd done it this time!" Why were they making such a noise? I put my finger to my lips to gesture them to silence: the last thing I wanted to do was to warn Lambertazzi that I was about to invade his retreat. "Don't worry about the noise!" came the reply. "We're here to arrest Lambertazzi and Bardi. The Capitano himself has come to take them. They’re on their way up his tower now. We thought we'd try to find you. That little girl Laura told us you were in this tower: but you’re not!"
Relief flooded me: I was no longer alone, and the presence not only of my friends but also of the Capitano and a sizeable force explained why I had not found myself confronting a small army of Lambertazzi’s men summoned to his aid. He may have called for them: but they could not have come, even had they wanted to.
"I was down there," I laughed, "But Lambertazzi and Bardi both got away from me. I’m after them now. Come across to this tower: but go one at a time on the bridge. I don't trust it. I don't trust any of them," I added, as the catwalk I was standing on, even narrower than the last, lurched under me. "Who's covering the fourth tower, then?" I asked. "That one over there?"
"Sordello and some of the Capitano's men," shouted Paolo.
The towers were so close together that we could almost conduct a normal conversation from one to another, even though my friends were some way below. At that moment, a door opened on the fourth tower, and there was Sordello raising his torch as if in salute. If the Capitano was indeed climbing the stairs with his men, he had closed off the other route out of Lambertazzi's tower. There was no escape for him that way: I would corner him in his private lair - and kill him.
I ventured out again onto the walkway, hefting the sword in my hand and wondering if I could adequately wield something so much longer and heavier than I was used to. At that moment yet another noise erupted. From a lower window on Lambertazzi's tower a head emerged. It was the Capitano del Popolo, who immediately recognised me. "Is that Lorenzo? I’m glad you’re still alive, you young fool! Where is Lambertazzi? We’re here to arrest him."
"I'm not sure, Signor Capitano. But I think he'll be in his chamber - a couple of floors above you." He waved in agreement, and barked orders at the men behind him: I could just make out their shapes and the moving lights of candles and flaming brands at the windows as they made their way up the stairs. At that moment the door at the far end crashed open, and my quarry appeared.
Heaving himself through the narrow doorway, Massimo Lambertazzi put one foot and then both on the walkway which swayed and groaned under him. With his left hand he clutched the handrail: but in his right he too held a sword, which he brandished at me threateningly. "Still alive, you young bastard? Not for long, though." He shuffled towards me a quarter of the distance, then half, his fat features illuminated and rendered still more malign by the flickering torch at its midpoint.
Maddened by my lust for revenge, I laughed at him and waved Bardi’s sword in turn. “Come on, then, Lambertazzi,” I shouted. “I’m ready for you! I’ll skewer you with Bardi’s blade!”
“You puppy!” he returned. “I should have killed you long since. I’ll put an end to you now.” He edged ever closer. This was the longest bridge between the cluster of towers, and certainly the least stable, but Lambertazzi needed to cover only some ten cautious paces to reach me.
Keen to fight him, I urged him onward. But Sordello, still two towers distant, clearly thought me in peril and bellowed across the gap: "Lambertazzi, you piece of shit! Leave the boy: I'll come and kill you myself!"
"No! Sordello: stay there! I’ll finish him." I shouted, but too late: he had disappeared inside the building.
As the timber rocked and complained beneath Lambertazzi, I laughed mockingly and pointed my sword at him. For the first time he appeared uncertain: he glanced behind him and saw that the other tower, now Sordello had left it, was unguarded, affording him a means of escape. He turned awkwardly and started to hasten back towards his own tower: but that moment the first of the Capitano's soldiers appeared at the far end. First one, then two stepped onto the bridge: a third, then two more. It swayed and twisted as their weight was added to that of Lambertazzi.
"Get back, you fools! It will not take all of us. Get back!" There was a note of alarm in Lambertazzi's voice as the platform swayed ever more wildly.
Beyond his men the Capital del Popolo could be heard. "Signor Massimo Lambertazzi!" he bellowed from behind his soldiers' torches. "I have a warrant against you. Come back!"
At that moment I looked up and, at a window above the Capitano, caught sight of Bartolomeo Bardi, just discernible in the darkness that almost obscured him. As I stepped back into the doorway to gain a better view of him, something whistled through the air. I felt a sudden, sharp pain in my left shoulder and found, to my puzzlement, that I could not move. I looked down: the hilt of a knife was protruding from my shoulder. As I tried to move forward I felt a piercing pain. Whether it was a lucky throw or superb marksmanship, I had no idea: but I was pinned to the door behind me.
In shock and alarm I let go both the sword and my torch. The weapon fell awkwardly and I cursed as it slipped off the edge of the building and spun away, following the guttering flame into the darkness below. I put my right hand to the hilt of the knife in my shoulder, and tried to pull it out, but the pain was so great that I could not: nor could I stifle a cry of anguish.
Observing both my plight and the hesitation of the soldiers at the far end, Lambertazzi regained his confidence. He changed direction again and, almost jauntily, approached me once more, directing his weapon towards my throat. Helpless as I was, I could only watch as, now only a couple of paces away, he prepared to plunge his sword into me: as if in a trance, I found myself wondering what that penetration would feel like. The first three soldiers followed him along the plank, and a few more made to follow: yet they were too far away to save me.
The bridge complained again, and the Capitano pulled back the two closest to him. As I looked in mortal fear along the beam, to Lambertazzi and beyond, it began slowly to lurch to the right. The rail to which the enormous man’s left hand had appeared clamped pulled away altogether from the stonework at the far end. His savage grin turned to a rictus of terror. He dropped his sword and seized the right-hand rail: but now the entire span was contorting and bucking under him. It was slipping away from beneath my feet, too. Only the knife through my shoulder held me safe (though it made me howl) as my feet scrabbled to gain purchase on the stone boss that until a second before had supported the massive truss.
The entire construction was disintegrating. As the woodwork shook itself one last time, Lambertazzi let go of the rail, which now afforded him no safety. He appeared to be running uphill while the entire platform was fragmenting. Somehow he gained purchase on a remaining fragment of the structure and hurled himself towards me, stretching his arms almost unbelievably to seize in his huge hands first one, then the other of my flailing ankles.
Now, momentarily, the knife through my shoulder supported the weight of both of us, causing me to shriek my agony once more. There was uproar as Paolo, Giacomo and Salvatore burst into the room behind me and wrenched the door open, pulling me with it and, now dangling desperately down into the void, Lambertazzi still clinging to me.
"Lorenzo," shouted Paolo. "What the hell are you doing? Christ!" I could only groan in anguish, but he took in the situation at a glance. He and Giacomo each seized me under my arms while another hand, presumably Salvatore’s, grabbed my collar.
I tried to kick Lambertazzi’s hands from me, but his weight stretched my legs straight below me, my body distended as if on the rack. I looked down into his face: it was filled with horror, his mouth open, pleading. Even had I been able to kick him away, I knew at that moment that I could not have brought myself to.
I forced the words out, one by one, though I could barely think for the fiery spasms coursing through my torn, pierced shoulder still, impossibly, nailed to the door by the knife which ground against the bones of my shoulder. “Paolo. Take... his... hands.”
“What?” he replied. “Are you crazy?”
I shook my head, though that hurt too. “Take… his…” Before Paolo could argue further, my boots that I had so prized, now tightly pinioned in Lambertazzi’s remorseless grip, started to slip from my feet. His hands were grasping empty air: first my boots fell away and, next, the torchlight caught Lambertazzi’s panic-stricken face, his mouth opening to scream as, with the last of the timbers, he too tumbled over and over into the darkness, his fine robes billowing as he wailed his last despair. Beyond him three of the Capitano's soldiers also plunged earthward with the collapsing bridge, shrieking in dismay, while their commander and another of his men managed to seize the arms of the last two who, legs flailing as mine had done, were somehow dragged back to safety.
As we watched in sombre amazement, we caught sight of the black figure of Bardi in a window only one floor above the Capitano, whom we could still just discern within the doorway. We roared across the gap, pointing to the floor above him: grasping what was happening, he moved towards the stairs. Meanwhile Bardi swung himself out of the window and leapt across the gap to the catwalk that connected it to the fourth tower one storey below. It was a massive jump, crazy enough if undertaken in daylight, and all the more risky in darkness where he could not have a clear view of his target. He landed on the extreme edge, and his feet slipped: he disappeared from sight so that for a moment it looked as if he had met the same doom as his master.
Yet somehow, implausibly, one hand clasped the rail. The other joined it. Then we could see Bardi as he managed to swing his legs back to safety, finally manoeuvring his body onto the bridge. As we bellowed our hatred he waved at us ironically, then made an obscene gesture in our direction. The Capitano and his men now found themselves a floor too high, and although they yelled at Bardi and even threw the odd knife, he quickly regained his feet and dashed into the next tower. I cursed Sordello for leaving his post there, apparently out of concern for me: but the damage was done. We had witnessed the literal downfall of Massimo Lambertazzi, but his lieutenant had slipped through our hands.
There was more pain as, while the others held me fast, Paolo wrenched the knife out of the wood of the door. Slowly we made our way down to the ground. Searching in the darkness, I retrieved my prized boots, wiping the blood from them on the hem of Lambertazzi’s rich robe while trying to look too closely neither at the mound of smashed, crumpled flesh that had once been my enemy, nor at the remains of the Capitano’s men who had lost their lives in similar fashion.
If I was too dizzy with hurt and shock to speak much, Paolo filled the silence while he explained volubly, with frequent interruptions from our two friends, how he had come to my rescue. I had, it seemed, left the house in uproar as I followed Laura in search of Livia. My master and Sordello, convinced that I had gone to place my head wilfully into yet another noose with an inevitable and fatal consequence, had swiftly decided that the only hope of saving me was to take the Lambertazzi letter to the Capitano del Popolo and convince him that it might furnish sufficient proof of his treason.
As Sordello left to complete that mission, he had bumped into Paolo, who was returning to the house to see whether I had been successful in my mission to free Rosalia. He in turn had gathered our friends and, while the Capitano gained entry to the Lambertazzi tower by dint of authority and force of arms, those lads had bluffed their way into the lesser tower by playing on their old acquaintance with some of the wagon-crews from their trips to Modena.
The rest I could work out. At last, as we approached my master's house, I was overcome with weariness. There were faces in front of me, those of Michele, Mamolo, my master herself. Giacomo and Salvatore too crowded around me, supporting: yet I felt they were hemming me in, suffocating me. I knew there was something I needed to know, but my mind was not working properly. My master's face came closer to mine, pinched with weariness and worry. "Lorenzo," she said.
I remembered what I wanted to know. "Tommaso? How is Tommasino?"
"He lives," said my master. "But you are hurt. Come, let me tend that wound."
"I'm all right," I retorted. "I just need..." And then I was falling. I felt I was myself plunging from the top of Lambertazzi's tower, spiralling into that abyss, over and over as he had done, as if forever.
A hollow victory
The pain awakened me, a burning, searing sensation in my shoulder where the knife had penetrated. I opened my eyes. My master was washing the blood from my body and sponging my brow and all the while humming words of comfort: childish, meaningless things that were nonetheless soothing, her singsong voice – surprising in comparison to her croaking tone day-to-day - taking me back in memory to my first arrival in her house.
I knew my injury was less grievous than on that occasion: nonetheless the pain was keen as the physician – was he here again? I wondered distractedly – interfered with my wound. As I moaned and then swore, both of those tending me smiled. "I see you have lost none of your spirit with the blood that you shed, Lorenzo," said my master with a smile. “Your wound is clean, and the physician is applying unguents before he binds it up. He is not worried for you. Indeed, I have seen you in worse shape – the first time I met you."
“I suppose you have, Magister. And I had no clothes on then!” I laughed, and the movement caused a shaft of pain to course through my shoulder and body. Yet it still felt good to be alive. “Magister, did you know? My boots, those marvellous boots.”
“I know. What of them, except that you preen yourself when you wear them?”
“No, I don’t!” I was indignant.
“Of course you do! You strut like a peacock, Lorenzo.” She put her hand on my good arm. “And I love you for it.”
For a moment I was abashed by her rare display of affection. Then I recalled what I wanted to say. “They saved my life. Lambertazzi, he…” I tried, but I could not continue.
“Tell me when you’re feeling stronger, Lorenzo,” my master replied gently. “It will keep. You are wounded, and must rest in order to heal.”
Something about hurt and healing stirred my memory: where had I seen the physician binding a wound? Memory flooded back and, with it, anxiety. "Tommaso. How is he?"
She responded with a smile. "You will soon be able to ask him. He is sleeping, as you must. But it seems the crisis is past, and that he will live – thanks to the good doctor here," she added, nodding respectfully to the physician. "Now you must rest." And I did. As my wound was tightly dressed in clean linen and the pain eased, everything became indistinct, and I drifted back into sleep.
I felt that I slept fitfully, though probably I woke little. Nonetheless, every time I stirred, there was my master watching over me, wiping the sweat from my brow and the dribble from my face. I slept through the next day and night without really stirring.
It was daylight, and I was awake. As I tried to move, I could feel stiffness and a slight pain in my left shoulder, but it was nothing unbearable. I rolled onto my right side and tried to sit up. My movement attracted the attention of someone across the room. I was in the master's chamber, lying on a mattress on the floor. My master was standing over her bed on the other side of the room, tending to someone else, and talking.
Immediately she became aware that I was awake and came over to me. "So, Lorenzo, you have returned to us! How do you feel?"
It felt hard to speak at first, and the words emerged thick and slurred: yet everything seemed quickly to return to normal. "I feel... I think I am well, Magister. Though I need to piss."
She laughed. "That is good, then. Shall I help you to stand?" My left arm was bound across my stomach so that I could not move that injured shoulder: she took my right and helped me to my knees and then to my feet.
"I was just speaking to Tommaso," she said quietly.
Tommaso! I had forgotten him again! But for once I did not indulge in self-recrimination. I knew I had been wounded, significantly though not dangerously: I had been also on the edge of exhaustion. Now I felt well, strong, hungry and in need of relieving myself. With my master supporting me on one side, I walked slowly across the room as my head cleared. And there was my old friend: he was still desperately pale, but his eyes were open. And he smiled at me. "Luca." Another smile. "Lorenzo. I must remember your new name." The voice was faint and feeble: but it was unmistakeably his.
He was still occupying the master's own bed, so I sat on the edge of it and took his left hand with my right. "Tommasino. Thank God. I was afraid I’d lost you."
"Lost me? Heavens, no. Who would stop you doing stupid things... if I weren't here?"
It was clear that even to speak was costing him a great effort, yet there was one more thing I needed to say to him. "And, Tommasino, I must tell you. I found Rosalia: I found your sister. I did what you asked me, Tommasino. I found her, and took her back to your parents. She is... well enough, though she has been through a bad time. I did do that for you, Tommasino. I did what you asked."
He smiled again, and his hand squeezed mine: the pressure was barely discernible, but it was there. "You don’t have to keep reassuring me, Lorenzo. I didn’t doubt you would. I knew you... Rosalia." He smiled again and closed his eyes. My master's hand on my back and shoulder urged me away. "We must let him sleep. He remains perilously weak. He lost much blood: and recovery will take time. But he will live. The physician assures me of it. Besides, he is in my debt, and knows he must not fail me!" I looked at her, and we both laughed, knowing that, as always, she was not exaggerating: the number of people in Bologna who owed her a debt, not necessarily a pecuniary one, was incalculable. "Come, Lorenzo," she said. "I will help you down the stairs, where clean air and the company of friends will act as a cure for you."
We were just at the top of those rickety stairs that led down into the courtyard when another memory returned to me. There should have been someone else being tended in that house. I turned to my master. "Livia? What of the Lady Livia? Did she not arrive here?"
"Ah," commented my master. "She did arrive, curiously wrapped in curtains and accompanied by her little blonde servant," she said. "But she is not here now." She caught my urgent, enquiring glance. "I found her... alternativeaccommodation. She is safe and well, and little the worse for her ordeal, if somewhat… chastened: but I thought it... better if she were not here." She looked me in the eye. "I think you know that in your heart, Lorenzo."
I was silent as I pondered the situation. Should I be angry? Bereft? I pondered for a moment, and found myself feeling, more than anything, empty. I nodded. "I expect you are right, Magister. You always are."
"You know that is not true, Lorenzo. But in this case I think perhaps I am," she added kindly and, taking my right arm, helped me safely down the stairs.
It was good to rejoin my friends and comrades, and to allow most of the household to return to its old rhythm. Yet, though my body healed - as quickly as ever, it seemed - my spirit was troubled. Tommaso was so weak that it pained me to see him. Our conversations remained necessarily short, and from time to time he lapsed into feverish periods. At such times, when life again threatened to slip away from him, the physician was called and there were grave discussions between him and my master.
As for Livia, I could never learn anything of her. My master and the rest of the household were tight-lipped, simply reiterating the bald fact that she was somewhere safe and that it was better if I did not know where. They implied that they were keeping her safe from her own family, notwithstanding the fact that the death of Massimo Lambertazzi and the disappearance of his advisor Bardi must have largely reduced any threat to her. I suspected that my master was keeping her away from me: or, perhaps, protecting me from further entanglement with her.
She was frequently in my thoughts as I recalled that pale flesh at the mercy of Bartolomeo Bardi. And, because I was a young man, I could not help but fill my head with fantasies of being reunited with her and receiving the gratitude due to her rescuer. In my vivid imagination her ways of expressing that gratitude were invariably carnal: what nineteen or twenty year-old boy or man – I was never sure which I was, or how I was regarded in the master's entourage – would think in other terms?
As the household returned to normal, leaving me to live quietly and allow my wound to heal while beginning to assume the lion's share of caring for Tommaso, I became introspective and morose. Not allowed out, I even missed the climax of my master's crusade to end slavery in the city. I was not deemed strong enough to cope with the crowds that descended on the city's main square for that rare meeting of the Due Mila, the council of the Two Thousand. Sordello accompanied the master for her protection, though the Capitano del Popolo sent men to accompany both her and Master Rolandino to the Consiglio, so they were never in danger.
Besides, the threat to the new law from its leading opponents had largely dissipated. Without Massimo Lambertazzi they were fragmented and disorganised. After his literal fall the Geremei, previously the only one among the great families to support the move to emancipate the city's six thousand slaves, persuaded several of the other magnati that the offer of compensation was a generous one, to be seized with alacrity.
Master Rolandino, so my master reported to me, translated and read aloud the letter we had intercepted from Lambertazzi to the Archbishop of Modena. It was not, as my master had attested, absolute proof of guilt but, now that he was dead, it was strongly suggestive to the Two Thousand that the great families might close ranks and try to seize power: thus the Council was swayed, as she had hoped.
Lambertazzi’s eldest son, Roberto, had attended the Council, dressed in mourning. He did his best to refute the allegations and turn them back on Master Rolandino: but he gained little credence. Indeed, the Two Thousand ordered that messengers be sent to Modena’s Podestà to express Bologna's extreme displeasure at the involvement of both the Archbishop and Umberto Uguzzoni in such a conspiracy: both (it was later reported) were discovered to have left Modena on urgent and prolonged business in Rome.
As for the cache of weapons, it was never found. Paolo went with the Capitano to identify Lambertazzi's men so that he could question them. But the foremen from those wagon trains had made themselves scarce when their master fell. With a wry smile the Capitano had commented, "We never had a case against Lambertazzi. He would have produced endless witnesses to attest to his innocence."
"So why did you storm his house with a warrant for his arrest?" asked Paolo.
Still smiling, the Capitano said, "Because the Magister asked me. I am in her debt as many others are, for reasons that you do not need to know. It was a bluff, pure and simple. And, fortunately for all of us, Massimo Lambertazzi was convinced, and panicked."
"But why at that moment? Why did you go that very night to the Lambertazzi tower?"
"The Magister insisted," he replied. "She was worried about that young fool Lorenzo, who'd got himself into trouble again. I've never met anyone with such a capacity for getting himself in a mess!"
Naturally there was merriment back at the house, at my expense, when Paolo recounted the story. He seemed to be a more frequent visitor than ever, now firm friends with Sordello and his troupe and often sent on errands by my master, causing me some pangs of jealousy. And, after the legal triumph, naturally my master and Maestro Rolandino were beside themselves with juristic satisfaction at seeing the Liber Paradisus enacted in the city.
For my part, however, I felt somewhat apart and excluded, and could not shake off my gloomy mood. The Feast of the Nativity came and went, Mamolo cooking several sumptuous meals at which Sordello generally joined us, though at that time of the year he was frequently in demand as a troubadour – and a highly-paid one, at that.
The master returned to her usual pattern of life, dividing her time between lecturing to the university’s students and acting for the guilds, the merchants and, once again, a number of the families. My shoulder had healed, and I played my part once more as scribe, though always I would hurry us home to see how Tommaso was improving.
He was healing, yet with aggravating slowness. By Epiphany, the end of the period of festivities, we would talk sometimes for as much as an hour before he would need quiet and sleep again. We talked of old times, of our happy days of friendship in Modena, of his family, even of Rosalia.
I confess I was not wholly honest with him about her: how could I tell her brother of the abuse and rape she suffered at the hands of Cortino? So the stories I told focused mainly on my rescue of her from those three would-be rapists. I even made him smile when I described how she felled one of my assailants, though I forbore to tell him precisely how Cortino died. He must have guessed that there was a darker side to the story, but neither of us felt ready to explore it.
Still my bleak frame of mind persisted. I could tell that my master recognised it, and I sensed that it irritated her: but we did not discuss it. In that winter we were busy together with legal work and life had resumed its former pattern, apart from the time all the household devoted to Tommaso's gradual recovery. He was able to get out of bed now, and walk around the house and courtyard, though he generally needed to lean on someone and had the occasional fall when he tried to do without. If my mood was black, he was returning to the sunny temperament that I remembered. He began to make himself useful, too, helping Michele with the household accounts.
Michele had habitually kept a tight hold on the master's money, running the household's finances mainly on the basis of spending as little as possible, except when she scolded him for his meanness. I had always found Michele a stubborn if lovable old cuss, but Tommaso seemed able to charm him into allowing him to help with the money, allocating specific sums to particular purposes.
Even Mamolo began to grumble less about what he was allowed to spend on food, and we certainly ate well, sometimes under the master's pretence of needing to feed Tommaso and me up – though, after being painfully thin for months, my old friend was already regaining the round face that I remembered from our childhood, grinning beneath his mop of curly hair.
One day I returned with the master from her lecture in the square, a chilly one on a grey, sleety February day, and found Tommaso, as was usual by then, sitting at the table in that downstairs room we men now shared, working on the master's accounts. "Oh, Lorenzo," he said. "I have a message for you. Indeed, an errand. A lady has a message for you," he said with a mischievous smile on his face.
I was immediately all ears. "A lady? What's the message? Is it from Livia Lambertazzi? What does she want? Does she want to see me?"
Tommaso smiled again, infuriatingly. "Calm down! I wasn’t told: just that a lady sent you a message. You are to go to that albergo just inside the northern gate." He gave me the name, which I forget: a different building stands there now. "The messenger said that a room is booked for you there, that you are to stay there tonight, and all of tomorrow if necessary, and wait for word."
"What do you mean, wait for word? Is Livia going to come to me? Will I see her again?"
Tommaso made a face. "I don't know, Lorenzo. That's what the message was."
"And who was the messenger? It wasn't Livia herself? Did she send Laura?"
He looked puzzled. "No," he replied. "It was just… just a boy with a message. But the name, Livia, the place and the time were quite clear. So Michele gave him a coin and he went off happy."
“And when am I supposed to go?" I was beside myself with impatience and curiosity. Would Livia come to me? My mind ran on, inevitably. Would she offer herself to me? Would I know that wonderful body again?
"Calm down, Lorenzo,” he admonished me again. “If you leave now, you'll be there long before dark: it's not far. Then you can wait and see what happens. It sounds rather intriguing to me!" He had a wicked smile on his face now.
"Damn you, Tommaso. I think you're enjoying this. What am I to make of it?"
"Learn a little patience, Lorenzo. Stop cudgelling your brains and thinking so much about everything. Just go, and see what happens. And I'll see you about this time tomorrow."
So I went. The whole household seemed acquainted with the arrangement, Michele and Mamolo smiling and winking as I left, even my master giving a knowing smile from her balcony.
Another valuable lesson
I reached the albergo without incident: I had passed it often enough while running behind Michele’s horse, building up my strength and speed when I first joined my master's household. It was more comfortable than most hostelries, perhaps attracting the better sort of traveller from the cities to the north: Ravenna, Mantua, even Venice. I was expected, and was shown to a private room with a table, two stools and a bed. A boy brought a tray of cold meats, bread and wine which he left on the table. I observed that there were two platters and two cups for the wine: but no one could tell me who would visit me, or when.
I have never been good at waiting, with nothing to do: perhaps it reminds me too much of my various periods of imprisonment, shorter or longer. On this occasion I could not be still, but paced the room. At last, I could not say how much later, there was a knock on the door. I rushed to it, and wrenched it open. In front of me was the diminutive figure of Laura.
"Signor Lorenzo," she said, with a little curtsy.
"No one calls me Signor anything!" I replied. "But I thank you for your courtesy. Just call me Lorenzo and," the words burst out me before I could stop them, "Tell me of the Lady Livia. Am I right in guessing that you still serve her? Did she send you? Tell me, is she well?"
She smiled patiently. "If you would just let me in, sir – Lorenzo," she chided me gently, "I might be able to answer all your questions."
"I'm sorry," I said. "Since I received the message from her: or was it from you? Whichever it was, I have been beside myself.
"I can see that," she responded, again with that warm smile.
"But I'm forgetting myself," I felt bad about ignoring the rules of hospitality. "Will you sit and take something to eat and drink?"
"I will. Thank you. Just some wine for now."
I poured us both a cup of wine, but could only sip at mine once or twice until I had to ask her again. “So what news of Livia? Do you serve her still? How does she fare?”
She smiled. “I do serve her, sir: Lorenzo. She is well: and safe where she is. She would have preferred to see you," I nearly leapt to my feet. “As I say, she would have liked to see you,” she put her hand on mine, "But you must understand that she cannot. To do so would lose her the protection she enjoys. So she sent me instead. She asked me to bear you her greetings, and her thanks. You saved her from a terrible fate, she says, and she will never forget it. As for me," her tone changed, "I would thank you not only for saving my lady but for killing that monster who ruled my life and treated me as an animal. And for saving me from that slimy Bardi who abetted him as his whoremaster."
I was surprised by the expression of her own gratitude: I knew I did not deserve it. "It's true I saved the Lady Livia, with your help," I said. "But I didn't kill Lambertazzi, although I helped to bring about his downfall." I grimaced at the memory of my enemy swaying drunkenly on the collapsing bridge: clutching at my ankles and threatening to drag me down; finally plummeting, screaming, into the blackness below. "In the end I never touched him: he fell. As for Bardi, I only scratched him: you know he escaped. I guess he's left Bologna by now, but he'll go somewhere else and make mischief there."
"Yet, Lorenzo, you don't understand what else you did. I know because everyone's talking about it: have you not heard what they've been saying?"
"Heard what?" I was bemused.
"The new law. There are no more slaves.”
“I know that: it has been my master’s great work, but I had little to do with it. I was not even there at the time: I was hurt, and they would not let me out.”
“You’re too modest. What you did to Lambertazzi,” still the venom entered her voice when she mentioned his name, “Meant that, instead of preventing the new law, the families accepted it. All of us who were serfs know the part you played in that. And we are all in your debt.”
I shook my head. “You attribute far too much to me.”
“Nonsense!” she replied. “You have no idea what this means to me, what it means to us all. My name is written in that great book. Every one of us who were slaves can now see our names inscribed by the notaries: even though we cannot read them, we know they are there! It is a wonderful thing. The notary, that big man everyone’s talking about, he showed me, pointed to the writing that he said is my name. Look!" she put her hand to her neck: "No more do I wear that filthy rope round my neck to show that a man owns me. No man may bend me to his will or use me as his whore, unless I choose it."
I did not know what to say. "I'm glad," I said. "You're no longer a slave. Yet you still serve my lady: why?"
"I serve her out of love. Oh, I know she's fickle and difficult: and she likes to play games with men and make them dance to her tune. But she is as kind to me as ever, and I serve her gladly. I would die for her," she concluded.
"But now she must pay you, if you serve her?"
She laughed delightedly. "Yes, she does. Or, rather, the family who keep us pay me. Not a great sum, but I have my own place to sleep, not the stinking bed of a man who uses me how he likes: and I am fed and clothed. And that is why I came to thank you."
I was puzzled. "But did the Lady Livia not send you?"
She adopted a patient expression, as if she was talking to someone rather stupid. "Of course she did. She asked me to find you and to thank you for saving her, to say that she would always be in your debt.” Her tone became more earnest. “Lorenzo, please don't hope that she will ever be yours. She cannot, and will not be. That is why I may not tell you where she is, and you must not follow me when I leave you. But she will always remember you."
I nodded glumly, understanding all too well, while Laura continued urgently. "But I wanted to thank you myself, Lorenzo. You changed my life when you saved hers. I too will always be in your debt and," she coloured a little, "I do not know how to thank someone like you. You're young and handsome: at least, you are now that you're not wearing that horrible mask!" Now she was teasing. "And you live among all those fine people, not in my world. But I owe my new life, my good fortune, to you: and, even if my mistress cannot thank you in person, I can."
She stood up from the table. Now her face was still redder. "Sir, Lorenzo, I..." She stopped speaking. Her hands went to her throat and undid the woollen cloak she was wearing: she tossed it onto the stool on which she had been sitting. Her hands went to her throat again and fumbled with the laces that tied the collar of her dress: it was plain, again made of wool, but clean, and warmer and less ragged than the poor shift she had worn as a slave.
I stood up. I swear I tried to stop her. I put my arms on her shoulders and said, "Laura, there is no need to do this. I accept your thanks. You don’t have to do any more to prove your gratitude."
She pushed my hands away, stepped back and let first her dress fall, then her linen shift: and she was naked in front of me, the contours of her body accentuated by the light of the one candle that the inn had provided. "Let us get more heat from the fire," she said coyly, and knelt in front of the fireplace as she pushed more logs onto it from the pile at the side. Her body glowed in the firelight. She was short but well rounded, with wide hips, a full bosom and a skin that was relatively unmarked. No wonder Lambertazzi had desired her so much, and so often.
She turned back from the fire and came towards me. I was still standing, astonished. "Lorenzo, I will pay that debt. No one is making me do this. I wish to give myself to you: because I can; because I am free to do this by my choice; because I am fond of you and I know that you’re sad. I talked to your friend Tommaso."
I started. "He told me it was a boy who came."
She laughed "I asked him to, silly: I told them all at your house. I'm pleased they kept my secret. Even my lady does not know what I am doing: she thinks I am away from her tonight because I must make sure that I am in the book of freed slaves. But I have already done that. Lorenzo, I know you cannot have my lady, and I know you loved Tommaso's sister and think you have lost her: what was her name? Rosalia?” I nodded. “I know I cannot replace either of those women you have loved. But let me make you happy, just for one night. You must stop being sad and be yourself again."
She stepped close to me and unlaced my jerkin. "Sit down," she said, "And I'll help you off with your boots." When I protested she silenced me. "I've done it enough times for other men, Lorenzo. I can manage once more."
She stood me up again, and helped me out of my breeches. Then my shirt: and I too was bare in the glow of the firelight, facing this pretty, generous, willing woman.
She ran her hands over my body and down my back. I felt her fingers tracing the ridges and furrows on my back, the scars from that terrible whipping years before in the tower that had belonged to her master. She turned me round, and traced the lines more closely in fascination. "Is that what they did to you, Lorenzo? Those two beasts?" I nodded. "I think you have suffered more from that family than ever I did," she said: "Come, hold me tight."
So I did, holding her close to me, though in my inexperience I was unsure how to hold a woman against me when my all-too-evident physical desire put a barrier in the way. She laughed and pulled me down on the rug in front of the fire. I kissed her on the lips. I kissed her nipples, her belly. Then I was between her legs, my need pressing, demanding. Her skilful hands helped me to enter her: but I was too far gone. Within moments I was spent.
Like many a young man before me, I felt foolish and ungenerous at leaving her unfulfilled. She hushed me and giggled, "I should be flattered, Lorenzo: pleased that you desired me so much. Come, don't be embarrassed. It happens to young men the first time," she looked knowingly into my eyes, "Or even the second?" It was my turn to blush, and I nodded miserably.
Her hands reached up held my cheeks, "Oh, Lorenzo! Tommaso told me you take everything too seriously. How lucky you are to have such a friend! Listen to me: stop worrying. We can make love and have fun. We can even laugh about it, you know! Making love is quite a silly business: it’s always messy, awkward, and often it goes wrong, mainly because you men are so anxious about it. And then, people talk as if women are not supposed to enjoy it: women of a certain class, at any rate. But I do, I really do: when it is my choice. And you are my choice tonight. Now, why don't we eat, and drink some wine in front of the fire, just as we are? And then we shall make love again – and laugh!"
I am not sure that ham, sausage, bread and wine have ever tasted so sweet to me. I did not love Laura, but I admired her. She was confident, brave: after all, she had summoned me to rescue her mistress. And she was generous, giving herself to me out of gratitude, freely and without reserve. Moreover, she was right: I found I could laugh, too.
When we had eaten, she asked teasingly, "Shall I come and sit on your lap?" I was hardly likely to demur. She did, and my desire returned rapidly. But this time, without the urgency of the first time, she encouraged me to explore her body, to feel, to kiss and to lick. “Take hold of me properly, Lorenzo!” she said impatiently. “I’m not made of glass, and you’re not going to break me! I’m a woman, and I need a man to hold me: to feel me, desire me, want me!” She encouraged to me to feel her breasts: to weigh them, fondle and caress them; to explore her whole body with my hands and my lips.
Thus she taught me something of what women like, of what they would like us men to do more often, though we rarely do so because we are so driven by our own selfish, male needs, behaving more like bulls with the herd than humans with feelings. Again those explorations, kisses exchanged, and embraces culminated in front of the fire, the ecstasy this time both shared and satisfying. It must have been very late when she took my hand and said, "Let’s go to bed and sleep. But not too long: we have only this one night."
I protested that I was sure I could not satisfy her again. She smiled and said, "Lorenzo, there’s a great advantage to being young, even to being inexperienced. Your body doesn’t know when it's had enough!"
And so we slept a little. What a wonderful thing it was, to sleep that first time pressed against the warm, soft flesh of a woman. Ever since that night I have considered it one of life’s great pleasures. Now long accustomed once more to sleeping alone, I still miss the feeling, sometimes aching for that particular form of companionship. However, in my old age I do not want a woman, however lovely, to lie beside me only because she is paid to: though I confess I have been tempted on occasions.
It was still long before dawn, and the fire had died down to a red glow, when I felt her lips on my stomach, kissing it, her tongue exploring my bellybutton. Then it moved lower down my body. At first I was repelled by the sudden memory of what she was required to do for Lambertazzi while he was watching the torment intended for Livia. But she pushed my hand away, saying (in a muffled voice), "I've told you, Lorenzo. I choose to do this. No one will make me do it again: I do this out of affection for you." And then her lips and her tongue were busy and, within a short time, my arousal was complete once more.
Only later, perhaps long after, did I understand the true nature of her gift to me. To be sure, no young man is likely to refuse the offer of a night spent with a willing, good-looking, experienced woman. But she knew too that she was educating me in the ways of love: she taught me to be tender and considerate, not greedy or predatory. I have never been a great lover, but I hope she made me a thoughtful one – and generous, as Laura was to me.
More food and drink arrived with the morning. We both ate sparingly, and knew without speaking that we did not need or want to make love again. Indeed, I was entirely sated: yet suffused with a warm glow, a sense of fulfilment as well as of gratitude to the warm-hearted young woman.
"Now I must leave you, Lorenzo. I must return to my mistress."
I wanted this encounter to continue forever. "Don't," I said. "Stay with me.” I had a sudden inspiration: “Why don't I marry you, Laura?"
She laughed, bent down to where I sat and kissed me full on the lips. "No, Lorenzo. You are sweet, and kind. But I am too old for you: I must be twenty-five or more. And I have been used and misused by too many men: spoiled goods, as they say. I’m lucky to have a mistress to serve and a roof over my head. You know, I feared I might find myself in a brothel when my slavery came to an end: too many girls have been thrown onto the streets by those who used to own them, so freedom has not been good for all of them. But I am in a good home, and I count my blessings."
As she finally laced up her dress and then her cloak, she looked me in the eye. "I really do count my blessings, Lorenzo. And you should, too. You have good friends, and a kind master. You have the undying gratitude of two fine women: and of a poor, common one. Even if you have lost all of them, you can carry that knowledge in your heart. Don’t give up! So warm a person as you will find a woman you can love – and who will love you. Love will come to you, I’m sure of it. You are very lovable, you know.”
I tried to speak, but she hushed me. “Stop being sad. Go back to your friends, and enjoy your life. Keep learning all that law with your master. Don’t stop singing. And value your friends, for they all love you: Tommaso, Paolo, all of them. Don't forget that. Goodbye, Lorenzo." She kissed me on the mouth, her tongue searching mine and beginning to excite me once more: then she left.
I sat there, still naked, shivering now in the cold of the morning, and thinking, perhaps more furiously than I had ever done before.
Revelation and affirmation
I was shaken out of my torpor by a knock at the door. Embarrassed, I pulled on my shirt. Outside was a boy with, unusually, a written message. I was needed at once at the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo: there, it read, my master, Maestro Rolandino and all the scribes they could muster were busy inscribing the names of the thousands of slaves freed by declaration of the Due Milain what had become, as its authors desired, the Liber Paradisus. At least the task would keep me busy, I thought, so I dressed, stuck my head under a fountain outside to clear it and set off into the centre of the city. I tried to pay for my night's board and lodging, but was informed that it was all taken care of: the landlord would not say by whom.
Less than an hour later I presented myself at the Palazzo, and was ushered upstairs, averting my gaze as usual from the corpses hanging on gibbets all the way up the grand staircase. Maestro Rolandino greeted me affably, and my master was unusually chatty. "My, Lorenzo," she commented, "You look as if you've barely slept!" I could not decide whether she knew how I had spent the night and was mocking me, so I looked for a twinkle in her eye: typically, however, she gave nothing away. On the contrary, with the usual comment, "We have much work to do," she set me to my task.
I had half expected to see a line of the thousands of slaves who were being freed presenting themselves and adding their names to the roll: but that was not the case. The former slave owners had submitted lists to the Comune, and we had merely to copy the names in. It was wearisome, tedious work, and it was dusk when we finished. My head ached, and my fingers were black with ink.
"Come, Lorenzo, let us go home," said my master. "Master Rolandino is dining with us tonight, and I hope that you will join us at table."
"Yes, Lorenzo: let us eat and drink together," added her colleague warmly. "You have done much for the Magister, for me and for this city these last weeks."
Flattered, I thanked both of them, and we made our way home, stretching our backs and hands and complaining of cramped muscles from the day’s writing. The two eminent jurists were still swapping anecdotes from the final debate of the Two Thousand that I had missed and for once, hilariously, they were neither discreet nor modest in their expressions of pleasure at their achievement.
A thought occurred to me, a loose end that I had still failed to tie up in my mind. “Magister,” I asked, “Now that this episode is closed, what of the Gatekeeper? Will he reveal himself? Or will he continue to manipulate the city, all of us – even both of you?”
Master Rolandino harrumphed and made evasive noises: but my master stopped, took me by the arm, and turned to face me. “Lorenzo,” she said, “I think it is time we were honest with you. Did you believe that we were as ignorant as you of the identity of the Gatekeeper?”
“No, Magister,” I replied. “I assumed that you purposefully kept me in ignorance. Not because you did not trust me,” I added hastily, “But so that the truth could not be forced from me. Although you once asked me to find out who he was, I never believed that you did not know.”
“As usual, Lorenzo, you see through my… prevarications. You are right, of course: I have truly desired to protect you. But now, are you sure you want to learn his identity? Doing so might yet lead you into peril.”
“I do, Magister: for I feel I have walked in the dark long enough,” I added reproachfully.
“I believe you have, Lorenzo. You have earned my further trust in this: I owe you my honesty. The Gatekeeper is…” Her colleague coughed loudly, but she gestured him to silence. “No, Rolandino, dear friend. He does indeed merit this revelation. Lorenzo, the Gatekeeper does not exist. He is an invention. If anyone, he is the Maestro Notaro here, and I. When we found ourselves deep into conspiracies and stratagems, we felt we needed some form of… protection from our enemies. So we concocted the notion of a shadowy figure who controlled us and to whom we reported, rendering us to our opponents merely pawns in someone else’s games rather than their authors. And, to a large extent, it was a successful ploy: after all, we are still alive! Though, in my case, that is thanks to you,” she added.
I stood astonished. For years I had felt that it was the name of the Gatekeeper that had led me into some of the terrible situations I had experienced: and now he was revealed as someone who existed only in my master’s imagination. Should I be outraged? Angry?
Then I saw the brilliance of the notion, and the absurdity of resenting someone who had never existed. I stared at my master, who returned my look anxiously. And then I burst out laughing, roaring at the humour of a conundrum that had long vexed me but had now vanished in a puff of smoke. My master began to chuckle, and then Master Rolandino, and soon the three of us were embracing and bellowing with laughter, attracting curious glances from passers-by.Eventually we regained our composure, and my master urged us to walk on.
“We must get home,” she said, though she failed to explain why there was any particular hurry. I was about to open the courtyard door for the two of them in my usual way when she stopped me, and instead knocked peremptorily. "Let Michele admit us tonight," she said.
The gate was thrown open, and in we walked, to be greeted by an extraordinary sight. A great fire was blazing in the courtyard, crackling and throwing out light and heat. It illuminated a long trestle table set up there, and around it were gathered, in short, all the people I counted my friends in Bologna: Sordello was there with his two fellow musicians, Andrea and Filippo; Paolo, Giacomo and Salvatore, my three drinking companions; even Mamolo, clad in apron and wielding a large ladle, was smiling, while behind me Michele cackled, "Come in, come in." The seat at the head of the table was empty, but to its right, propped up comfortably with cushions in a large chair, sat Tommaso. All were smiling at me, grinning and laughing.
I followed my master to the head of the table, and pulled back the chair for her to sit. But she put her hand on my arm. "No, Lorenzo. Today the place of honour is yours. I shall sit at the other end with Master Rolandino."
Confused I sat down and turned to Tommaso. "What the hell is going on?" I asked.
"It's a celebration, you donkey!" he replied.
"Of what?" I asked, still blind.
Tommaso's exasperated answer was drowned out by the rich baritone of Sordello, who proclaimed, "Lorenzo. This banquet is in your honour. Through your bravery and sacrifice – I might even say heroism, but for the fact that you might become big-headed – you have saved the city from strife and occupation, preserved your master from murder, rescued two women to my knowledge from ill-treatment or worse – oh, and we like you! We count ourselves privileged to be your friends." All raised a cup and toasted me: "To Lorenzo!"
I was dumbfounded. And speechless. Tommaso leaned towards me. "Say something, Lorenzo, so we can get on and eat. I'm famished!"
His silly comment, the sort only an old friend can make, shook me out of my stupor. I stood and said, "Friends, for so you all are, the privilege is mine. Since I came to Bologna, and more than ever in the last few months, I have learnt what friendship is. Indeed, what love is. And, if I have achieved anything worthwhile, or even taken risks (most of which the Magister tells me were foolish and poorly calculated), all was done out of my regard for the friendship and love all of you have shown me. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you."
I sat down to hearty applause and the feasting started. I'm sure we all drank more than was necessary or wise. We ate magnificently. Two or three courses in, Mamolo proudly announced that the next dish was my (and the Magister’s) favourite. I retorted that it could not possibly be, because my dish of choice was prime lean beef, fried and doused in balsamic sauce: "But, as we all know," I said, "There is no balsamico to be had in Bologna."
"There wasn't any to be had," roared Paolo, laughing as he said it. "But, while we were raiding Lambertazzi's house, mainly to rescue you from your crazy escapade, the Capitano's men came across a hoard of barrels of the essence.”
I was astonished, mouth agape. “What’s up, Lorenzo?” laughed Paolo. “Does the sauce mean so very much to you?”
“No. Well, yes: but I’ve just understood something. Ages back, all that time ago, when I was serving at table in Modena… You remember, Tommasino: help me out!”
He chuckled too. “I would, Lorenzo, if you made any sense!”
“I’m trying to! We knew they were plotting to create a shortage of the balsamico: just to make Bologna uncomfortable. But it never occurred to me that Lambertazzi had built up his own secret hoard. The old bastard was swimming in the stuff, when no one else in Bologna could get hold of a drop.”
“Till now,” retorted Paolo. “The Capitano leaned on the new head of the family, Roberto, to release it, and at a fair price too. I believe he suggested that the gesture might make his family a little less unpopular with the Popolo. And I, well, I confess Salvatore and I liberated a barrel that night, while we were bringing you home."
My amazement increased as, out of the shadows, stepped the Capitano del Popolo himself, his wine-cup raised. "I salute you, Lorenzo. You saved this city from an unwelcome invasion and seizure of power, and you removed the ringleader without the need for a messy trial.” He held up his hand to stifle the company’s applause, adding, with a roguish smile, “Most important, however, you led us, albeit inadvertently, to Lambertazzi’s hoard of balsamico. Though,” he hesitated for mock effect, “We may all regret that you didn’t call that little plot to mind somewhat earlier. In Bologna we’d have hanged him for that crime alone: everyone here knows that life is simply unbearable without the essence!"
There was more laughter, and we tucked into Mamolo's finest creation yet: I swear there was even black truffle in that magnificently rich sauce, though Mamolo merely smiled mysteriously when I asked him. Later on, as the fire kept us warm even in the chill of a February evening, we talked and joked until late. Then, inevitably, we started singing. Sordello and his troupe led the way, and I knew all the songs by now, and the descants. Later still, looking to my right, I noticed Tommaso leaning over and speaking to Filippo, who handed him his rebec.
"Come, Lorenzo,” he said. “Let us see if I can still play this thing."
"You'd better, Tommaso," laughed Sordello. "For my boys and I will be heading off to France in the spring: I am summoned to return to Duke Charles's household. So if Lorenzo is to continue his career in music, he will need a new band!"
"You’re leaving?" I asked Sordello. "Already?"
"Lorenzo, I’ve been here nearly a year. I too serve a master, you know. Besides, you have learnt the trade: and that other trick of it, gathering intelligence while you play and sing. Remember: you've learned from an expert!"
I laughed. "That I have," I replied: “From the expert! So we shall have to get Tommasino a new instrument.”
My master cut in: “That will be my gift to him, a paltry gesture in relation to the debt I owe him – that we all owe. Lorenzo, we must be up betimes tomorrow: there is much work yet to do. So let us get on with the singing.”
Tommaso started playing. It was as if those years in between had fallen away, the tone of the little instrument sweet and warm as he played one simple folk song after another, the rest of us joining in as we recognised them. He looked pleased at our applause, and then looked across to where I was standing, near the fire. "Is it time, Lorenzo? Shall we sing the song now?"
I did not need to ask which song. As we sang it my heart leapt. Memories crowded my mind of those happy times in his family, my first meeting with Rosalia and the magic that occurred between us when we sang. Then I thought of all the hurt and wrong I had encountered: the damage done to that girl whom I had rescued from servitude and abuse, and our grievous parting; the love, lust and loss of Livia; the men whose lives I had taken, almost casually; my ordeals at the hands of the Prior of Modena and of Massimo Lambertazzi; the monstrous activities and horrific death of the latter; the moment when I thought my dearest friend would die of the wound he received while carrying out a plan of my design; and, above all, the loss, through all of these and more, of the final vestiges of my innocence.
The tears ran down my face: yet I was glad, and unashamed. They flowed from joy as much as from sorrow. It was as if they were washing away the pain and the doubt, even the misery that had gripped me since those recent adventures.
I lifted up my voice, and as I did so it seemed my soul and all its hurts were at last beginning to heal. Tommaso and I looked into each other's eyes, each knowing the other's thoughts, sharing our pleasure and our sheer love of the music as we sang together.
Ti canterò lo meo amor...