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Hard choices

My master continued. “It is curious how frequently I appear to ponder your future. You will have understood by now, because you are certainly not stupid, even if you are vain and excitable, that Sordello and I are... involved in the intrigues that I have outlined, as is Maestro de’ Pasaggeri. Indeed, we have been so for a decade or two now. So I think your own curiosity has brought you to a crossroads at which you may take one of three turnings. 

“First, you may forget this conversation and leave my service now. I will give you money for your journey and merely warn that, if you ever breathe a word of what I have said, Sordello will find you and end your life. It is that serious a matter.” 

Once more she waved away my protestation. "Second, you may continue exactly as you have been, as my servant, my scribe - as my helpmate in many ways. You have done well, and I value your service. But, if you do not wish it, I will not involve you in any of these dealings which are, at the very least, perilous.  

“Third, you will continue with your duties as you have done. But you will also become my eyes and ears. You will listen out for plots and conspiracies: in the squares, in the marketplace, and in the houses of the great and powerful to which we gain access. You will report back to me everything, absolutely everything that you hear and learn: but again, if you tell another person, Sordello will find you and kill you. These precautions are designed to protect not my life, but the health and wealth of the city I love and serve. 

“Those are the hard choices, Lorenzo. There are no others, so consider well. Now, which is it to be?"

For a moment I was nonplussed. I could scarcely believe the offer that was being made to me. But my decision required no pondering. "Magister, you know me too well. You already know my answer. I will be your eyes and ears, and I will die before I divulge anything I know. Yet will you not tell me? Who is the Gatekeeper?"  

She paused before answering. "Even I do not know that, Lorenzo. It may be perhaps your prime task: to discover, and tell me, who the Gatekeeper is. And, while we seek for that deep truth, we will between us, God willing, lay bare the secrets of the enemies of Bologna."

Abruptly she turned to Sordello. "And now, Sordello, I must tell you of another of Lorenzo's skills that I have omitted to mention until now. He is a fine musician in the making, if a little rusty at present. While you are in Bologna, I believe you can train him, make him known as a troubadour in your mould so that, when you depart once more on your travels, he can gain access to the houses and revelries of our friends and enemies alike. You know how well your skill has served you. The musician at the banquet is invisible, yet he hears and sees everything. We will train Lorenzo to be the new Sordello."

Sordello grunted. "The new Sordello? He has much to learn then, and not only about music. 

"I can sing," I retorted “I can improvise descants. I can hold my own in any musical company.”

"I dare say you can, boy," replied Sordello. "But I doubt whether you can do that, listen to what's going on, bribe and threaten to gain information, and handle a knife when things get dangerous – all at the same time. Can you? I thought not. Then you have, as I said, much to learn." 

Thus I entered into yet another apprenticeship. My master and Sordello, acting in unison, had meticulously planned this whole scene, then, entirely a confection of play-acting, all based on the fact that they already knew the secret I had been carrying for so long. It had been a test that, fortunately, I passed. In the following days we planned my training, not that I had much say in it. What was I learning to be? A spy, perhaps: certainly an agent, working secretly and always reporting back to the Magister. 

She was particularly solicitous towards me.  I suspected she felt that they had pushed me too hard: in truth, I had been sorely tried. But, as my anger and resentment at that harsh treatment subsided, those feelings were replaced by one of exultation and deep excitement.

I had little real idea of what I was becoming involved in. But Sordello was entertaining company: moreover, when he was with her, the master was quicker to laugh and less severe than usual. Besides, what eighteen year-old boy, anxious to be a man, could resist the allure of conspiracy, danger and intrigue? I was beside myself, and wanted to get started immediately. As always, though, whenever I badgered them I was scolded for my impatience. "But what am I to do?" I demanded. "What part do I play in all this?"

"Your part is to shut up and stop asking damn fool questions," growled Sordello. "When you are ready – and that's when I say you are, because the Magister is much too soft with you – you'll be our ears. And you’ll recount to us every conversation that you overhear." 

It had been decided that I would sing alongside Sordello: all his troupe sang, though his two shabby fellow-musicians, Filippo and Andrea, mainly played the rebec and drum. Filippo was a mournful character with a thin face and long, lank black hair. He played the rebec proficiently - though, whenever I heard him play, I couldn't help thinking that Tommaso would have shaped the phrases more elegantly. His miserable character added a plaintive tone to his playing: this became more pronounced when he had been drinking, something he did prodigiously when we performed.

By contrast, Andrea looked precisely as a drummer should. He was round, bald and unquenchably hilarious. When he had been drinking (which he also did to excess, to Sordello's disgust), he became uproarious. He still played well: but always, as drummers will, he pushed the music faster and louder. The audience loved those moments, clapping and cheering him and demanding more, while we singers were close to expiring.

Every performance ended in a row between the three of them. Sordello would berate them for drunken sots who could not earn a crust without him to keep them in order, so poor was their musicianship. Andrea would curse him in turn for a miserable killjoy whose views on music were too highbrow and whose songs were far too intellectual to appeal to ordinary people. At this stage Filippo would usually burst into tears and then fall asleep. Thus I could tell that they were proper musicians! 

I loved the work. At first it was hard. The musical language of Sordello's songs was entirely different from everything, both sacred and secular, that I had learned in my previous life. Where the cathedral music had been necessarily austere and rarefied, Sordello’s music possessed an earthy vigour. Moreover, although many of the turns of phrase and underlying rhythms of his melodies were rooted in the kind of folk music I had learned from Tommaso and his family, and appealed readily to the audience (whatever the drunken Andrea might say), there was a subtlety, an added layer of sophistication, that made them great.

And the texts! How I came to admire Sordello's poetry – once I had got my tongue round both his Veronese dialect and his songs in French, a language entirely foreign to me. He was a ruthless taskmaster, repeating over and over again until I was word- as well as note-perfect. By the time I knew the text, the melody too was well fixed in my memory, and only then was I allowed to improvise a counterpoint to some verses. 

Demanding though he was, he gave me credit when I contrived a particularly elegant contrary movement in the approach to a cadence: not that he said as much, confining himself to a grunt and a nod. From some people, though, that is enough. Like my master, he did not waste empty words on praise: from both of them a mere hint of approval was all I needed, or expected.

The training did not end with music. That was merely a matter of time. Sordello confessed, as far as he would admit to anything, that I possessed sufficient technique to satisfy him. I was merely required to learn the repertoire (it is surprising how many songs a troubadour needs to fill an evening's music). 

But Sordello had plans for increasing the range of my skills. "Have you ever handled a knife?" he asked me one day, in his brusque manner. "You don't look as if you have."

"No," I replied. "I've been threatened with plenty, not least by you, and I’ve felt them against my throat more often than I’d like. But I've never handled one. The Magister’s not keen on weapons. When I started carrying Michele's cudgel to accompany her in the streets she said, ‘I looked… ridiculous’,” (he laughed at my imitation of her manner of speaking), “And forbade me to take it. Yet I’ve often felt that some kind of weapon would be useful if ever she were threatened."

"You must learn, then” he concluded. “I would argue that a musician needs a knife. At some of the feasts where we entertain, things can get nasty after a lot of wine. But in the work we're preparing you for, things could get a lot more dangerous, so you had better learn to protect yourself. And her," he added as an afterthought.

"Don’t you care about what happens to me, then?" I asked innocently.

"Of course not, you idiot!" he snorted. "But we don't want you killed before you've spilled the information you've gained. 

Thus a new aspect was added to my training: how to use a knife.

I have always felt there must be better ways of teaching the young than slapping or bellowing at them until they master the subject. Sadly, no one ever tried such novel methods on me: certainly not Sordello – or not at first. He drew his own knife and put it in my hand. "Now," he said, "Try to stab me."

At this early stage in our association, I had not yet learned to love the great troubadour: indeed, I still harboured an intense dislike for him. But I had never handled a murderous weapon, and this invitation seemed extreme and somewhat absurd. I lunged at him half-heartedly. He immediately stood back and snorted with derision. "Come on, you milksop. Make an effort. Stab me!" I tried again, still without conviction, but this time the response was a stinging slap on my cheek. Then the slaps rained on my face, as he hurled abuse at me. "Come on, you weakling. Is that the best you can do? I thought you were tough and brave, the Magister's great protector. Come on, show me what you can do!" 

The slaps continued, and the goading, until I was genuinely riled. I hurled myself at him, the knife pointed directly at his breastbone. I have never been an instinctive fighter, being quicker with words than with fists or weapons. Back then I was clueless. Unsurprisingly the wicked blade, longer than the span of a hand, never touched him. Instead he was suddenly beside and behind me. His left hand was round my throat while his right twisted my wrist so sharply that I dropped the knife with a cry of pain.

Sordello put his hands on my shoulders and looked me in the eye. "You really have no idea about using a knife, have you?" I shook my head. "Perhaps that's a good thing. You have nothing to unlearn, and everything to grasp. We shall begin now."

Once again I was made to feel a novice. Yet, to my surprise, Sordello was gentle and encouraging. While we were learning to sing together, he had always been demanding, treating me (with some justice) as a fellow professional. By contrast, understanding that I was neither naturally disposed to violence nor experienced in it, he showed his skill as a teacher. 

We started with basic techniques: how to hold the knife; how to approach my antagonist; how to feint and parry: and how to watch my opponent's eyes as well has his knife-hand. We practised again and again, Sordello always demanding more, yet giving credit for progress. "You're doing well, lad. But you've much to learn. It’s fortunate that your singing's good: we haven't time to put that right too." 

We took to using wooden daggers so that we could fight in earnest, and even wrestle for possession of a blade. I learned how to deceive my opponent, and to disarm him. I even achieved that feat once or twice with my mentor, though I always suspected that Sordello had allowed me to. However well I learned the skills, and he was a good teacher, I never had his speed or eye, so I knew I would never truly have the edge over him.

Some weeks on he finally declared himself satisfied. He reckoned I could take care of myself at a pinch, though he issued one warning. "Lorenzo, I know you're not a killer. That's to your credit. Too many of those already roam the streets. But remember this: the first time you face an enemy with a knife, he will be trying to kill you. 

“You can only defend yourself, however much you might think you're good at disarming someone, if you are truly ready to kill him in return. All this work we have done with our toy blades is mere play. When the real thing happens you must have no scruples, no hesitation. Be like an animal, like the wild boar at bay: even when the spear is embedded in his entrails he will do his utmost to gore the hunter.”  

I must have appeared unconvinced. “Look inside yourself,’ he continued.  “Deep within all of us lies the mean, vicious side that we dislike and try to hide. If you want to live, you must search for that dark piece of your soul. No scruples, no regrets, no compassion: find the cold-blooded murderer within you, and put him to work. Make no mistake: you must kill your enemy, or he will assuredly do for you. Wound him merely, and he will come back at you, doubly intent on slaying you."

It was a sobering thought. "I shall try," I replied. 



A harsh lesson

Sordello declared me ready to go to work, and announced that we should have a trial. He arranged that our troupe, now playing and singing as an effective, tight ensemble, should perform at one of the tavernas that surrounded the Piazza Maggiore. Word spread like wildfire throughout the city. Sordello was back in town, and performing free for patrons. When we arrived to set up, not only that hostelry but the whole square was thronged with people. As usual, most of the customers were spilling out from the cramped hostelry into the open space, some on benches around tables, some on stools, many simply standing.  

Everyone wanted to be there. My first musical performance in Bologna was thus very different from my debut in Modena, but no less daunting. Few of the crowd could have heard Sordello in the last five years, because he had been away from the city: my master frequently, if fondly, berated him for his long absence. Yet his reputation went before him: and he knew how to play a crowd. He started on his own, accompanying himself on the beautiful fifteen-stringed harp he carried. 

It was a simple love song, one of his compositions in French. I had presumed the crowd would expect something boisterous as an opener: but always Sordello surprised his audience and won it over. A silence fell. People even stopped eating and drinking, a rare enough response in Bologna: they strained to hear him when he dropped his voice to the soulful, heart-rending finish. Instantly the applause erupted amid cheering and stamping. "Sordello! Maestro! You've come back to us!"

Before the applause had died away we launched into a roistering drinking-song, Andrea pounding the large, flat round drum held firmly in his left hand, using both ends of a stick with his right. Even Filippo projected joy into the playing of his rebec as Sordello and I sang the melody together. In the third verse I added a harmony part above Sordello's melody, and in the last two verses I created a proper descant, swooping and turning in contrary motion, exploiting my high falsetto to the full. Again the reception was rapturous.

And so it continued. The crowd loved the music, whether it was fast or slow, high or low, loud or soft, happy or sad. Sordello's artistry encompassed a dazzling range of styles and moods, yet I was not merely equal to the task: I was inspired by the challenge, and excelled in his shadow.

As the evening drew on, the nature of the audience changed. Families had headed off towards their homes and, by the end, there were fewer listeners, those who had been eating meals or drinking steadily throughout our entertainment. Judging the mood nicely, Sordello changed the music to match it. The songs we performed now were more tender. We were singing directly to the thirty or forty people closest to us.  

As we continued (even taking occasional breaks, we had been performing for well over three hours), I became aware of a florid, bearded face at the table close to us. Far from enjoying our music, he seemed to be scowling. When others cheered and banged the table, he turned away in disgust. As we sang and played I could see him address his neighbour and point at me, his expression and gestures unmistakably hostile. As we embarked on another song and I added an appropriately emotional descant, he raised his voice so that I could hear him sneer: "What's that caterwauling? Is that boy some kind of eunuch, wailing like that?" 

I ignored him. Performers must learn to do so, knowing that they cannot please everyone. Yet this heckler persisted, at times calling out during a song so that everyone could hear it. His dislike appeared to intensify, and it was directed not at the group as a whole but particularly at me.  His gestures became more animated. Sordello indicated that this song would be the last before we took another break. I was relieved, because my self-appointed critic was starting to get under my skin. Throughout that song he was mouthing obscenities at me, and, as we reached the final cadence, I was sure he said, "Fucking eunuch." 

As we stopped I could bear it no longer. I walked over to him and asked what was troubling him.

"Nothing much, boy," he replied. "Just that your voice sounds like a cat wailing at night, and you're ruining Sordello's songs."

I was angered. "Ruining them? The maestro says he's delighted with what I'm doing."

"Sordello's losing his touch, then. He used to have a good band: not this rubbish. He needs to sack you for a start."

As we argued I could feel the anger rising in me: he was making a deliberate attempt to get under my skin, and it was succeeding. Eventually he said, "You aren't listening to me, lad. Your voice is horrible: you're wrecking the music, and I suggest you piss off home and leave it to your colleagues who know what they’re at."

I have confessed often enough how easy it was to goad me until I lost control. By this stage I was beside myself with fury. I drew the dagger I now habitually wore at my waist and pointed it between his eyes. "My friend, I think you'd better take back that comment, or you'll regret it." He laughed in my face.

Suddenly my right wrist was seized, the knuckles of my knife-hand smacked repeatedly on the table until I let the knife drop. I turned to see Sordello, furious. He picked me up bodily by my shirt and hurled me across the room. I leaped to my feet, both enraged and astonished. "What?" I demanded.

"You fool. You bloody stupid little idiot! What do you think you’re doing, pulling a knife on someone?"

"He was insulting me, and all of us. But me especially. He has no right to speak to me like that."

"And did he threaten you?"

"Well, no. Not exactly. But he..."

"So you pull a knife on a man in a tavern because he doesn't like your voice?"

"It wasn't like that."

"Yes it was. I knew I couldn't trust you. Your temper’s too wild. You lose control. I don't mind if you get yourself killed: but you're not dragging us down with you." He turned to my bearded antagonist, who was now grinning from ear to ear. "Thanks, Francesco. You did a good job on him."

The bearded man chuckled. "Never found an easier one! You want to watch that temper, sonny. I played you like the maestro does his lyre."

"You mean... you set this up?" I was abashed.

"Of course I did," snorted Sordello. "It's another lesson you have to learn. You’re no use to me if you cannot keep your temper. As soon as you lose it, you’re at risk. Had you been in need of defending yourself, you would have been useless. In our work – and I don't just mean musical – you must never, never lose control." He seized me by the collar, and looked into my eyes. "Do you understand? Do you really understand?"

He released me. I felt ashamed and stupid. I dropped my gaze and stared at my knife, lying on the table, hating it and myself. Unable to speak to him, I nodded. Then, mastering myself, I turned to Andrea and Filippo: "I’m sorry, boys. I've let you down." I picked up the knife, turned and left. 

Disconsolate, I walked slowly back to the Magister's house. She greeted me as I entered the courtyard. "Lorenzo! How was it?" I made no reply, but shook my head. "Ah, I see. Another lesson learned, perhaps? I am sorry, Lorenzo. They are hard ones. But… necessary."

"So you were in on it too, Magister? Is everyone setting out to make a fool of me?" 

"No, Lorenzo. I expect you did that all on your own. But I hope we shall have taught you not to do so again. Go to bed, and we shall speak in the morning." 

Even now the reminiscence of my youthful follies causes me on occasions to squirm with embarrassment. That episode in particular still has the power to wake me from slumber, foolish old man that I am! That night, I slept badly. Indeed, I hardly slept at all, tossing and turning instead, cursing myself for a fool who could be manipulated so easy and, in equal measure, blaming Sordello who, once again, had set me a trap into which I had fallen headlong. 

I was both morose and desperately tired when I rose to perform my usual morning ministrations to my master. We completed our morning rituals without speaking, I sullen and silent, she impassive. Only when I had served her breakfast did she speak to me.

"Well, Lorenzo, what did you learn last night?" 

I hung my head in shame. "I learnt two things, Magister. First, I'm an idiot who never seems to learn. And, second, whenever I'm tested I let my friends down." 

She looked at me in that searching way of hers. "Do you count me your friend, Lorenzo?" She asked softly.

"Yes, Magister. I do. But then, it doesn't seem the right word. It doesn't mean enough." I was suddenly overcome with emotion and, partly to hide the fact and partly because it seemed so natural at intense moments of this kind, I dropped to my knees beside her. "I owe you my life and – I know, you tell me not to keep saying so, but it's true. But it's more than that."

One minute I was tongue-tied: the next the words were tumbling out of my mouth. "You know I never had a mother or father, or at least, I never knew them. I didn’t miss them, because I hadn't known what it was to have parents, to have people who loved and cared for me. Not until I met Tommaso. I went to his house and saw how his parents loved him, and how they sent him away to Modena not because they did not love him, but because they wanted the best for him. They denied themselves the joy of having him in their home – because they loved him so much. Yet he was never happier than when he was in their home, for one short week in a whole year."

I stopped, embarrassed. 

"Go on," she murmured.

"Well, now I have a home. And on your own you have become to me mother and father, brothers and sisters. I know I can never truly repay your kindness to me, though I try to serve you as well as I can. But I always mess it up. I do something stupid and thoughtless. I disappoint you, when I desperately want to please you. And I let you know that at bottom I'm useless and untrustworthy and that I shall never deserve your confidence. And I shall never make you proud of me." Like a little boy, I pushed my head into her lap and cried my heart out. 

There was a long silence. Then she took my head in her two hands and pulled it upwards so that I was looking into her eyes, her hands cupping my cheeks. "Oh, Lorenzo. When will you learn not to take yourself so seriously?" 

Her tone was gentle, chiding me certainly, yet with love and kindness. "None of us is perfect. We all get carried away by our emotion, our pride, our greed, our ambition. We become like a pig's bladder filled with air, until something pricks it. And what happens then? It is instantly deflated, with a… loud fart!" 

I looked up: I had closed my eyes, but opened them at this, startled by her use of a coarse word, something she never did.

"Lorenzo, you are not so different from anyone else, displaying both strengths and weaknesses. Indeed, you are clever, amusing, a lovely singer, and a quick learner. Why else do you think Sordello and I are training you? You can do all that we ask of you and more: and I can always be certain that you will do my bidding. You silly boy, you please me all the time. It’s just that I am too sour an old sow to acknowledge it. I merely grunt and take you for granted. 

“Don't interrupt: you know I do. We have tested you cruelly, the two of us. And each time you have passed the test. Sordello set out to teach you a lesson last night: but I think you learned it, and that was its purpose. So dry your eyes. Compose yourself. And then we shall call Sordello in, and see if you can convince him that you have learned to control your temper. Can you do that?" I nodded, still unable to speak. "Good. A few minutes, then. And we shall go to work again."



Troubadour and spy 

As if on cue, Sordello entered the room. It probably was a cue: everything in this period of my training seemed to have been planned and orchestrated by the two of them. As he entered, I stood. "Signor Sordello," I said stiffly, "I believe I must thank you for teaching me another lesson. I am grateful for it, and can assure you that it has been well learned."

To my surprise, his austere, haughty demeanour suddenly softened. "I am sorry, Lorenzo," he replied. "It was another hard lesson for you: but one you needed to learn. There's passion in your heart, something I recognise and admire. It's why you are such a good musician – no, no false modesty. You are outstanding. I recognise much of myself in you. The Magister will confirm that I was wild and frequently out of control when I was young." She smiled and nodded, but said nothing. "And it nearly cost me my life more than once.

"You've seen how fights happen in the street. God knows, Bologna has enough armed gangs roaming the streets, whether they represent the old families or the new Companies of Arms: they're certainly flexing their muscles nowadays. They stand up to one another, shout insults and goad one another until the fight starts.

"But responding to that is the best way to get yourself killed. To win, to stay alive, you must keep a cool head, antagonise your opponent and let him make the first wild swing. I've taught you enough to help you deal with an idiot bent on violence. A real assassin, now that's another thing. But the average bully should be no danger to you now."

I bowed. "I'm obliged to you."

Sordello laughed. "How stiff and formal you are! Lorenzo, forgive me. I humiliated you: but I think you will never forget yourself again. And one day, perhaps, you'll thank me for it." He strode across the room towards me. "Come, let us be friends as well as colleagues. Take my hand."

What could I say? The man was a consummate musician, spy, courtier – and he was offering me his friendship. In that instant I stopped resenting him, his superiority born of age and experience, and his closeness to my master. "Thank you," I responded. "Friend and colleague: I should like that very much."

"Good. And now let us get to work. Bettisia," I never used the Magister's name, and still found his familiarity shocking. "What must our next move be?"

She sounded downcast. "I have forfeited my influence with the magnati. It started with Lambertazzi, as you know.Now he has spread word around the great families that I am siding entirely with the merchants and the guilds. He is correct, in a sense, because they have right on their side. I fear I shall be welcomed inside the towers of but few of the consorterie for some time, so I shall hear no news from there – beyond the occasional informant whom I still pay."

I was shocked. "You pay spies in their households?"

"How naïve you are, Lorenzo! Of course I do. Or, rather, I did: but I earn less now, since being… shunned by the aristocracy. Fortunately I am still appreciated in the university, and well rewarded by the guild of students: otherwise we should have to live more… frugally."

(Indeed I was innocent in those days! Even now I still pay one or two well-placed officials a small retainer to keep me informed: just in case the city’s authorities decide to enact some kind of retribution, even against an old man, for some of my shadier activities in the past). I was still puzzled: "Magister, I understand how you have fallen out with the Lambertazzi. But, since you are so careful with your words, how have you so offended the other families?"

"Not all of them, in truth, Lorenzo. Indeed, although most are now highly suspicious of us, our good friend Master de’ Pasaggeri remains very much favoured by the Geremei, one family (and an important one) that supports our work.” I continued to look bewildered. 

“It is the new law,” she explained with unaccustomed patience. “That which, God willing, we shall pass here in Bologna within months. I spoke of it to you briefly, Lorenzo.” I nodded. “If we win the argument in the Consiglio, we shall finally put an end to slavery in this city – and in those places under our influence, such as Modena."

"I know we talked about this before, Magister. But I am still confused. Surely,” I protested, “Lambertazzi for one will never agree to it. His family owns hundreds of slaves."

Sordello cut in. "Of course he won't. None of the families will – save one. Only the Geremei will support the new law, thanks to work over years by Rolandino – Master de’ Pasaggeri.”

“But the Geremei must keep slaves too?” I was having difficulty in comprehending all this politicking.

“They do indeed.” My master was warming to the theme: “Almost as many as the Lambertazzi. But they will accept the compensation offered by the Comune: they see the wisdom of the move, for the good of all. Yet they are the only family so far to agree: every other one of note is against us.”

Sordello interrupted. “So if both the Magister and Maestro Rolandino are now excluded from the counsels of all the other magnati, then we must get into their houses. Where jurists or notaries cannot tread, musicians may! Let us roust out the rest of the troupe, Lorenzo, and go to work. I guess those two rogues are still sleeping off last night's excesses somewhere."

And so we did. For a while I began to inhabit that rarefied world created by the ancient families high above the streets of Bologna. We found ourselves within the enclaves of the Accursi, the Alberici, the Toschi and the Ghisilieri, all engagements that flowed from our first few appearances which had been engineered through the good offices of Master de’ Pasaggeri with the Geremei, one of the oldest and most powerful families, overshadowed only by the Lambertazzi and the Asinelli, yet disposed pragmatically to support the growing power of the guilds and the Popolo.

In all there were twenty or more families who each formed their own consorterie, their great towers clustered close together. At ground level they were like fortresses, stout timber walls with heavy gates surrounding the base of each, or occasionally encompassing two or three towers at once. There were stables, kitchens and accommodation for their retainers, as many as two hundred men or more with their women and children. As musicians hired to perform at a banquet we would arrive at the gate, to be admitted by a group of surly guards. Then we would embark on the wearisome climb, some fifteen or twenty minutes' breathless ascent (although Michele was still keeping me fit, it remained sweaty work) before we arrived at the family's luxuriously appointed rooms at the top.

The families, accustomed to fighting feuds with one another (though at this time more frequently building alliances against what they saw as the threat of the growing power of the merchants and the Popolo), felt appropriately fortified and secluded in their aerial world: yet they lived a cramped existence. Their towers, absurdly tall, were necessarily narrow, so that the family's apartments at the top of even the greatest towers were only some eight or ten paces across. Thus at a banquet, or wedding feast, the closest members of the family might eat in one room, the food brought up laboriously from ground level: then we musicians, having sung and played for them, would be sent across one of those perilous links to the adjoining tower in order to entertain the lesser members of the family.

I discovered that there was a pecking order among the families. The height of the tower reflected the status of the family, so that the Lambertazzi and the Asinelli gloried in their possession of the highest towers in Bologna, sneering at the lowlier families – at least, until they needed their support or wished to conclude a favourable marriage contract. I always suspected that the greater height of their towers also reflected the degree of their insecurity: from the taller building they could fire arrows at need onto their inferior neighbours, though I never saw it done. 

Among the great families, only the Geremei appeared to hold a different view of their lineage, and of their family’s place in the ever-growing, rapidly changing Comune of Bologna: as a result, in retaliation for siding with the merchants and the Popolo, and notwithstanding their great wealth and influence which must have rivalled those of the Lambertazzi, they were largely isolated.

Wedding feasts provided our most reliable source of engagements. At one celebration after another I would look with pity at the terrified expression on the face of a twelve or thirteen year-old girl, beautifully dressed and wed to a husband three times her age, her youth and virginity sacrificed on the altar of family politics, mastered entirely by the imperative of retaining power within that tiny aristocratic circle. 

There was a steely purpose behind our work as musicians, that of infiltrating the great families and discovering secrets and plots against the wellbeing of the city (from the point of view of my master and Maestro de’ Pasaggeri): yet I will not pretend I did not enjoy myself. As that spring progressed, warm and sunny as always in our part of Italy, the alliances between the great families, and their celebrations of them, multiplied endlessly. For a while we hired entertainers seemed nonetheless to live the life of the great families. 

While our work was the same as that of any group of troubadours, to entertain the aristocracy while they gorged themselves on rich foods and fine wines, talking and shouting above the music to which they paid little or no attention, we found vast amusement in this alien world. So high were some of the towers, so far above the kitchens in the courtyard below, that truly hot food must have been unknown to our employers and their guests, for all their wealth. We would watch trains of servants toiling up the stairs, staggering under heavily-loaded platters of roast meats, cheeses, fruits and other delicacies. 

Some families, I remember particularly the Guidosagni, had identified this shortcoming and, on the top of their tower, had cultivated a garden within the sturdy stone parapet that prevented drunken guests from plummeting to an early death: the space boasted a tree growing in the middle while, on a charcoal brazier in one corner, large chunks of wild boar and new season's lamb crackled and spat in the flames. The smell was so alluring that, at times, the rumbling of my stomach threatened to drown out our music.

We would lead grotesque processions lurching along those insecure walkways from one tower to another. After dark, torches would be placed in sconces above the doorway at each end of every bridge and frequently at its mid-point. There were handrails on either side, or those bloated and drunken guests would never have made the crossing safely. Yet, high as they were, the stone towers themselves swayed in the wind. Moreover, the connections between them wobbled and creaked alarmingly when too many people crossed at once, occasionally spitting out splinters that spun crazily down into the void below, while their anchor points at each end similarly ejected mortar and even lumps of stone.

As if anyone cared! They believed themselves to lead charmed lives. Andrea and Filippo, Sordello's trusty if bibulous colleagues, would lead the way, frequently roaring with laughter as they played their drum and rebec respectively. Andrea would beat out a rhythm that was impossible to resist and dragged the guests to their feet, while those narrow spans squeaked and groaned their protest. We would arrive in the adjoining tower, finding ourselves in yet another richly-hung room with more tables bending under the weight of food, and the banquet would begin afresh. 

Always full of mischief, Andrea and Filippo would seize every opportunity to nose around the family rooms at the tops of the towers. Sordello made sure that they never stole anything, but they pried habitually, while Sordello and I followed their lead, searching for any documents that might give us news of the machinations of the great families. Always in vain: perilous matters were rarely committed to vellum and, if they were, would have been securely locked away in the chest which, bound with iron and padlocks, stood in the corner of every family's great chamber. 

On occasions our two fellow musicians could not resist the temptation of pissing off one of the walkways. So high were we that we could never hear any reaction from below, and it was always too dark to see: but they joyously imagined the ruination they had visited on some grandee's fine clothes, giggling hysterically until sharply rebuked by our leader.

Notwithstanding all our efforts singly and together, we never learnt anything of our enemies' plans: nor did any opportunity occur for us to get inside the Lambertazzi house. At first we assumed that it was merely a matter of being patient, until a chance encounter in the towers of another of the consorterie, the Catalani. We were performing a routine drinking-song when the evening was well advanced: Sordello had dropped out to rest his voice while I carried the melody, as there was no need for a descant or other complexity. 

A voice spoke behind me, silky, oily and etched so firmly in my memory that I nearly forgot myself and stopped singing. But my training reasserted itself, and I continued while straining my ears to hear. The words were addressed not to me but directly to Sordello, standing to my left.

"My, my, Maestro Sordello, you are very much in demand these days: Bologna has not seen so much of you in many years."

 "Signor Bardi," Sordello replied evenly, bowing. I allowed myself one quick glance at the tall figure, immaculately dressed all in black, that I had twice observed in Modena, again encountered on my night of agony in the Lambertazzi tower, and subsequently spotted accompanying Livia on those precious occasions when I spied her attending the cathedral.

"So you still serve Lambertazzi?" Sordello was teasing.

"I have that honour. As you well know, I am not the first exile from another city to appreciate the freedoms and tolerance of Bologna. And Signor Massimo Lambertazzi is kind enough to offer me his protection in return for my counsel."

"And do you counsel him well, Signor?"

"I furnish him with excellent advice, particularly urging caution as to whom he trusts. And I would warn you, Sordello," I noticed that he dropped any title of courtesy, "To keep your distance and resist the temptation to spy for your particular friend. Make no mistake. If you care for the esteemed Dottor Gozzadini - and I think you do, perhaps all too much – you will advise her against any further interference in the affairs of the family I serve. She and her notary friend are becoming a thorn in the flesh of the great families."

"I dare say they will be gratified that their efforts have been noticed," responded Sordello dryly. "But they do not seek to interfere with anyone's business – merely, so they assure me, to serve and preserve the rule of law in the Comune. Surely no family, however great, would seek to put itself above the law, especially here in Bologna which sees itself, more than any city, as its guardian?"

His interlocutor's veneer of urbanity dissolved instantly. "Don’t bandy words with me, Sordello. It will take more than a mountebank and a brace of scribes to bring down the family that has made this city what it is. Bologna is become rich, and immensely powerful, and will not be swayed by a few scribblers with the support of the rabble. You have heard my warning, and if you are wise you will pass it on.” 

Sordello tried to intervene, but was cut off immediately by Bardi’s tone, now harsh and hostile. “If it is not heeded, things will go badly for your friends – and for you, particularly if you are unwise enough to set foot on our territory. Do not think for a moment that I do not see how you spy while you sing, and meddle while you play. I know you, Sordello. Have a care."



An important commission

After what seemed like an eternity the song came to an end. I turned to Sordello: there was no sign of Bardi. Hearing that voice, so close, so threatening, had brought back memories that I had tried to suppress, yet which still recurred in my nightmares. But Sordello was apparently untroubled. "You heard him, then, Lorenzo? Bardi, I mean?" I nodded. "Don't worry. His threats are empty: yet the fact that he makes them suggests that we have them rattled. Perhaps that is progress. We'll finish here as soon as we can, and report back to Bett... the Magister."

Back at the house we talked far into the night. Even Sordello had lost some of his usual certainty and optimism. "Lorenzo has done a good job," he said, putting some rare praise my way. “Between us we have heard much – and learned nothing of note."

"It's true, Magister," I added. "Everyone's talking about the work you and Master de’ Pasaggeri are doing on the law to end slavery. In the places we've been singing, many people seem to approve, even if they have some reservations."

"But then," cut in Sordello, "Someone will always add that the old families aren't happy. They mention the name Lambertazzi, and the conversation stops dead. We have discovered nothing."

"Has he told you that Bardi warned him off tonight, Magister?" I asked.

"No one warns off Sordello," he grunted. "But, yes, she knows it all."

My master was silent for a while. Then she said slowly, "We are sure they are plotting... something. We have no information, merely… suspicions. When the Lambertazzi, Asinelli and others were indulging in their usual small, mean tricks and subterfuges to get their way in the Consiglio, we used to hear about it: that is the way in any city. But it is the very silence, the barrier that we constantly strike, that makes me suspicious. What are they plotting? Does Lambertazzi think he can intimidate the council itself? Time was he could: but surely not now? Now that the guilds and the Popolo have tasted power and liked what they found."

"Can he not bribe and extort? That used to be his way."

"To be sure, it was how he operated – how they all did. But times have changed. No, I fear something altogether bigger. I suspect that Lambertazzi and his close allies will try to take control of the city by force. 

"By force of arms?” Sordello scoffed. “Those families have maybe a thousand men between all their retainers, guards and downright bruisers. That's not enough to take control of a city the size of Bologna."

"No, indeed. But it is the nucleus of a powerful force. They might achieve it: if Lambertazzi could buy support from elsewhere and hire a small army.”

“An army?” Sordello scoffed. Even with all his wealth Lambertazzi could not achieve that. Where would he find an army? Not in Bologna.”

“In Modena!” I surprised myself by interrupting. “Of course. That’s where I first saw Bardi, as you know. I was serving the Bishop’s wine: and he, the Prior and that Modenese lord, Uguzzoni, were talking about having a powerful friend in Bologna. When they named him, Lambertazzi, it was Bardi who stopped them and said they shouldn’t, not even among friends. You know how he speaks.” I could not resist showing off a little. “It’s a bit like a shawm, a bass cialamello, but warmer.” I changed my own tone to mimic my enemy. “If I may humbly suggest, Signori. He could charm the birds from the trees with that voice, if his heart weren’t so black underneath it.”

They laughed momentarily: it had been a good imitation! But Sordello instantly reverted to interrogating me. “But they never discussed details of what they were planning?”

“No. Bardi wouldn’t let them. But they complained about the Gatekeeper and how they couldn’t find out who he was.” I glanced reproachfully at my master.  “It must be the plot you’re suspecting." 

My master nodded. “I believe you are right, Lorenzo. With Uguzzoni’s enormous wealth added to his own, perhaps Lambertazzi could seriously consider an armed… intervention. With troops and arms from Modena, he could detain the consuls, the Podestà and the Capitano del Popolo, take control of the administration, and bully the anziani and the College into submission. He could free Enzo and declare him King, gaining the support of whoever is the next Emperor, when that matter is resolved."

"And what of the Pope?” Sordello remained sceptical. “He would never agree."

"Nor would he have the power to prevent it. The Emperor's faction would be delighted to see both the Comune here and the Pope at a distance humbled. No one would ride to Bologna’s rescue."

I was bewildered. "How can you know all this, Magister? Did the Gatekeeper tell you?"

"I… know nothing, Lorenzo. But I suspect much."

"So what can we do about it? We can't just sit here and talk."

"Ah, Lorenzo, you are always in such a hurry. But perhaps for once you are right. If Lambertazzi really is planning the kind of move we suspect, and Bardi takes the trouble to threaten Sordello, his plans must be close to fruition. He will be obliged to lay out a great deal of money. Therefore we should try to find out where he is spending money in large sums, whether it is in gold and silver or indeed hidden in his trading. There are more goods passing in and out of the city in the name of Lambertazzi than of most of the merchants put together."

"Aye, that's true," commented Sordello. "I've heard as much. You must have done too, boy, amid all that inconsequential babble we've been trying to follow."

"It's true, I have. But I thought families like the Lambertazzi believed trade beneath them."  

"Do not underestimate the magnati, Lorenzo," warned my master. "The old families still maintain their wealth through land and slaves, and their power through collaboration, but they are ready to learn from the merchants whom they fear and profess to despise. If, by buying, selling and controlling supplies of goods, they can maintain or increase their influence, they will do so – however much they may publically... sneer at what they term 'trade’."

I had a sudden inspiration. "If you want to find out what they're trading, Magister, then I know how we can find out." The other two looked at me in surprise. "My friends. You know: Paolo, Giacomo and Salvatore."

"Your disreputable drinking companions," she commented drily.

I grinned. "Not that disreputable. But yes, I do sometimes drink with them - when,” I added pathetically, “I have a moment to myself. They make a living mostly by loading and protecting traders' wagons. I only have to ask them to make sure that the next few jobs they get are guarding Lambertazzi's goods. But they might need, you know..."

"Some money for a drink, perhaps?" asked Sordello wryly 

"They have a living to make," I replied, somewhat defensively of my friends.

"They shall be paid," my master confirmed. "And handsomely, if they find us the information we hope for. Meanwhile we must not give our enemies time to plan and seize the initiative. On the contrary, we must keep them on the defensive. We shall push on with the change that Lambertazzi hates most, that makes him most angry. We must bring forward the law to end slavery. Lambertazzi is no fool, but this proposal has rendered him incandescent with rage when it has been discussed in the College."

"Is he not more dangerous when angered?"

"More dangerous, perhaps: but less likely to plan his response coolly and logically. I fear Lambertazzi, but less so when he is furious than when he is cold and calculating – which is when he will listen more readily to that snake Bardi, whose intellect is twice that of his master. So we shall do Lorenzo's bidding, and hurry things along in the hope that an ill-considered response from Lambertazzi will be more likely to go amiss. Truly a hasty solution… typical of Lorenzo, indeed! But a shrewd one. I know that Rolandino has all but finished the draft of the legal document: the LiberParadisus, the heavenly book that will put an end once and for all to the inequity of one man thinking he can own another.

"Lorenzo, you are proving yourself more valuable in our counsels than I dared hope.” I preened, until I caught sight of Sordello’s raised eyebrows and mocking grin. “You must see your three friends tomorrow and ensure that they position themselves guarding Lambertazzi wagons. As for me, I shall speak to Rolandino in the morning. Then you and I, Lorenzo, will go to visit our friend the Capitano del Popolo and lay plans so that the full council will meet to ratify this law."

"The whole council, Magister? Which do you mean? I confess I don't understand all the colleges and councils that claim to run the Comune."

"This is one you have not yet seen, Lorenzo. It is some years since it last met, but we shall ensure that it is obliged to do so in order to consider this matter. Master de’ Pasaggeri and I will go to the smaller College and … contrive matters so that they will conclude with a demand that the Podestà call a meeting of the Consiglio dei Due Mila. That will be a grand spectacle, Lorenzo: you will enjoy it."

"The Due Mila, Magister? You mean two thousand people?" 

"Precisely, Lorenzo. Normally a busy city must do business through smaller councils, some of which you have encountered. But for a great change like this, the full council must be summoned. It may require some few weeks to arrange. But we shall take the law against slavery, Rolandino's Liber Paradisus, to the Two Thousand, the guardians of our great city and Comune, one man speaking for twenty or thirty in his Quarter. And our suit shall prevail!"

The plans were quickly set in motion. When I sent word to my three friends that their help was needed, they arrived with alacrity, perhaps drawn by the chance at last of meeting my enigmatic master. Their arrival was interrupted by one of Mamolo's frequent outbursts from the kitchen, this time because he could not lay hands on any of the essence of balsamico, "Not for love nor money." He was complaining that the price had more than trebled in recent months, and now he could not find any at all. "How am I to make the Magister's favourite sauces now?" he whined. "She doesn't eat enough as it is, not enough to keep a sparrow alive." A thought, or perhaps a memory, nagged at me for a moment, but was swiftly gone again.

As was his wonted response, Michele roared at Mamolo to stop disturbing the household: and my master herself was firmly pacific, assuring Mamolo that whatever alternative sauce he produced would be entirely satisfactory. That was when Paolo, Giacomo and Salvatore arrived, bubbling with excitement and good humour.

The Magister briefed them on their task. They were to do all they could to attach themselves to any wagonload of Lambertazzi goods, wherever it was travelling, and find out everything they could. Above all they were to look for any large sums of money being transported, anything unusual about the goods delivered or collected, and they were to be particularly vigilant for any hint of secrecy in the transactions they witnessed. 

It was little to go on, but it was the only hope we had. The three of them were well known among the regular wagonners as extra pairs of hands ready to help with transporting and guarding goods. As long as they were fortunate in attaching themselves to a Lambertazzi convoy, there would be nothing to arouse suspicion.

I could see that the master was wary of entrusting sensitive information and, indeed, so important a mission to three ebullient lads. It was Sordello who broke into her third admonition to them about taking this task seriously, commenting quietly, "Magister, these young men know their way around, and are familiar faces amongst the wagon trains. They have Lorenzo's trust, and that must be enough for us." I looked at him in surprise, flattered by the compliment he paid me.

To my further astonishment, the Magister readily accepted his advice. "Very well. I thank you for your help, gentlemen. Lorenzo, obtain payment for them from Michele and show them out." Impressed to learn that I really did have proper employment with this eminent lawyer, my friends bowed awkwardly to her and to Sordello as they prepared to leave. As I was showing them out of the gate, I took Paolo aside. "Paolo, where do you think the next parcel of wagons is most likely to go?"

"To Ravenna, perhaps, or even Ferrara. But my bet is that it'll be Modena: that's where nearly all the Lambertazzi wagons are going at present, so I hear."

"I thought as much: and the Magister will be delighted if that's where you end up going. She reckons any plots against Bologna will be hatched there. But will you do something for me, my friend?"

"You're suddenly very serious, Lorenzo? What is it?"

"Paolo, your task is to follow those Lambertazzi goods and men, and not to take your eyes off them for a second. But if you do have a moment..." I stopped, in confusion.

"Come on, Lorenzo. Spit it out. What do you need me to do for you?"

"If you can slip away, I need you to... No, I must just ask you. If you can. You know I came from the Cathedral in Modena?" Paolo nodded. "Well, when I ran away from there I left a good friend. I've never sent word to him about where I am how I’m doing, although I promised I would. Don't talk to any of the priests, whatever you do. But - if you can find someone who has to do with the choir, or one of the choristers perhaps, could you try to pass word to him?"

"Of course, if I can. What’s his name?"

The name almost stuck in my throat as a wave of remorse overcame me. "Tommaso. I used to call him Tommasino. Don't use the name Lorenzo for me: I was called something different then. If you have to send him a message, just say that the choirboy from Venice sends greetings and is well."

"The choirboy from Venice? Lorenzo, I think there's more about your past life that you must tell us one day. In the tavern – and you're buying the wine, after all we're doing for you!" 

I laughed and clapped him on the back. "I certainly will: and I won't even complain about paying, although you and Giacomino drink twice what Salvatore and I manage! Thank you for doing this – all of it."

He looked me in the eye. "Lorenzo, it's when you trust a friend to do something important that you know he's a real friend. We'll do this for your master - and the other thing for you. You can count on that." And they were gone.


The College meets

The next two weeks were so busy for us that we barely gave my three friends’ mission a thought. We heard that they had gone to Modena, which served to fuel my master's suspicions that any conspiracy in which the Lambertazzi were playing a leading role must involve our neighbouring city, so frequently and so violently at odds with Bologna.

We had much to do on our own account. A couple of days after they had left, Master de’ Pasaggeri appeared unannounced at our door to report that the Capitano del Popolo had succeeded, more quickly than he had expected, in persuading the Podestà that he must call a meeting of the College to consider the proposed law to end slavery. Moreover, although he was the author of the draft, he was anxious that my master should accompany him in order to provide support and offer a second opinion on points of law. "For we know," he added, "That our opponents will bring to bear every opposing argument they can."

And so I found myself at my first meeting of the College. As always I accompanied my master through the streets to the Palazzo del Podestà. Once we had climbed the stairs to the gran sala, I expected to be sent out with all the other assistants, bodyguards and hangers-on, leaving the College alone. But, to my surprise, my master barked (betraying how nervous she was), "Lorenzo, you will stay. Be seated at that table, equip yourself with quill and paper and be ready to hand me any of those scrolls or papers in your scrip when I require them: particularly that copy of Master de’ Passageri’s document with my annotations. We may need to think on our feet."

Delighted, I settled myself down and rifled through my scrip to check which document was which, in case she asked for them. The table was situated at the edge of the dais at one end of the great chamber, affording me a grandstand view of the dignitaries and important functionaries of the council – the Podestà and four each from among the anzianiand the consoli. My master and her colleague, to my surprise, were not to be seated on the dais. Instead they sat among the ordinary members of the College at floor-level, on hand to offer expert opinion when called upon. 

Once all the benches in the hall were occupied, two pale and ink-stained men appeared and bustled their way up onto the platform, carrying sheaves of vellum, bundles of quills and bottles of ink. Peremptorily they pushed me to the very edge of the table while they arranged their equipment on it. Clearly they were the scribes, deputed to record the discussions and decisions of the meeting. Equally clearly they were full of their own importance, liked to make an entrance and resented ceding any space to me at their table. In order to play my part convincingly I reached into my scrip and pulled out a few sheets of vellum and the quill and small bottle of ink I always carried in case my master needed me to draft a clause or contract. They sniffed disapprovingly but ceased to push me any further.

As I looked across the dais, the Podestà, seated on a chair which rested on a small podium, raising it a little above the height of those around him, rose to his feet and cleared his throat.

"Gentlemen of the College," he announced, "I have called this Council because it appears impossible to delay it further. It concerns a piece of proposed law which, were I able to act entirely according to my inclination, would never have seen the light of day.” He spoke as if he had a bad taste in his mouth. “I refer, of course, to the proposal to put an end – no, I shall say it plain - to outlaw the long-established practice of slavery.”

The four anziani, or elders, to his right - among whom I noticed with a start the unmistakeable figure of Massimo Lambertazzi - murmured their agreement. On his other side, it was clear that the four consoli, the consuls who represented the guilds, felt very differently, just as their appearance was at variance with that of those with whom they were in disagreement. The latter were unmistakably magnati, aristocratic in bearing and haughty in demeanour, their robes trimmed with expensive fur, silver and white for the most part, large stones sparkling in the rings that adorned their hands. Whereas Lambertazzi was enormous, the other three ranged from diminutive to tall and lean - almost skeletal, indeed. All exuded an air of arrogant irritation at being called together at all, let alone to consider a proposal so preposterous to them.

By contrast, the consoli were dressed soberly, as if consciously eschewing the trappings of wealth. Yet their expressions were shrewd and calculating, their hawkish eyes scanning their opponents and the rest of the gathering. These were men who had accumulated considerable fortunes without the privilege of birth, and they would not permit old vested interests to thwart them, nor miss an opportunity to increase their wealth. Unimpressive as he was, for a moment I felt some sympathy for the Podestà, caught between such formidable sets of antagonists. Raising his hand towards the anziani, the Podestà continued. "Notwithstanding your disquiet, gentlemen, with which I have much sympathy, it is clearly the will of at least some of this assembly that we now consider it fully. Our esteemed notary, Master de’ Pasaggeri, tells me that he has now drafted the document in full. Accordingly it must be placed before you and opened to scrutiny and debate."

He gestured towards my master's friend. "So, Signor Notaro, will you read the text to us in its entirety?"

The eminent notary rose to his feet, bowed and spoke deferentially. "Podestà, I would be happy to do so. However, as is proper in any legal document, the text is written entirely in Latin. Nonetheless, with your permission I would translate it for you in brief, and provide a gloss of its main articles - if that would suit?" A murmur of assent rippled around the hall, and the Podestà nodded his agreement.

"Gentlemen, as the wise and elected guardians of this city of Bologna, who in this college represent and advise the greater Councils, I believe you have both the right and the duty to consider this matter in which I act solely as a humble scribe, instructed by previous resolutions to explore how in law this city might bring an end to the practice of slavery within its territories and dominions." A steady rumble of muttering, a confusion of approval and disapprobation, started to grow in the hall as Master Rolandino continued. 

"In law, it is quite simple. This College and the greater Councils have indicated that they wish the Comune to reappraise the value it places on human life. To be sure, some are greater in station than others. Some hold rank and wealth through family and position. Others have achieved wealth and influence through their success in mercanzia, in banking and commerce. 

“The guilds represented here also now have their place in the Councils of the city, as they should, representing as they do the craftsmen, the makers of tools, of goods, of finery and luxury that fuel the commerce on which this our city thrives.

“And the Companies of Arms, they who protect their respective Quarters of the city, and who serve at need in her defence – as they did with distinction only a few years ago at Fossalta, ensuring that decisive victory: they too demand a voice in the governance of Bologna, the city they bear arms under oath to protect.

"The will of this city's various Councils is, as I understand it, that all men – and, indeed, the women who serve them – should be paid according to their station, their skills, their knowledge, their experience and their labour. It is by adopting that righteous path that the city has rendered itself both rich and powerful. Its mills and its farms: its workshops and its forges: all are best worked by free men, offering their labour in return for a fair wage. And in this haven of honest trade and fair reward, there is no longer any place for a man to be demeaned by being owned by another, as if he were an animal."

The hubbub grew almost to a roar, as the notary raised his stentorian voice above it. "And therefore, with the assistance of my learned friend Dottor Gozzadini, I have drafted the legal instrument which, if approved, will allow this city and Comune to abandon forever the practice of serfdom. Slavery, for such it is, shall no longer have any place in the life of our great city and its territories." 

There was uproar. Most of the men in the body of the hall were on their feet, shouting towards the dais. It was clear that opinion was divided. Some were roaring their approval, while others bellowed defiance. There was even pushing and jostling in the crowd.  On the platform, Massimo Lambertazzi was on his feet, too. Somehow, above all the noise, his deep, stentorian voice made itself heard. "So you will rob us of our rightful possessions? Our serfs are as much our chattels as our houses, our lands and our beasts. You shall not tear them from us and leave us destitute!"

The Podestà seemed powerless to regain control. Beside him the Capitano del Popolo leapt to his feet and roared, "Silence!" Slowly, reluctantly, the noise abated. "I demand respect for this College, and for the position of the Podestà," he continued. "Gentlemen, this matter must be debated properly, and with dignity, or we shall all be the poorer for this, this mayhem." He turned to Master Rolandino. "I believe, Master Notary, that Signor Lambertazzi has put a question to you. What of the loss of wealth to those who keep serfs? Will he and others like him be recompensed?"

"Indeed, Signor Capitano. I believe that Signor Lambertazzi," he bowed in his direction, "Knows full well that ample compensation is planned, paid from the coffers of the city. The proposal is that the owners of freed slaves be recompensed to the tune of ten of our Bolognese Lire for each adult slave: and eight for each child, girl or boy." The murmuring began again. "Since I believe Signor Lambertazzi's family owns more than seventy-score slaves, it is clear that the Comune will be making a more than generous payment to him. I would estimate it in the region of some fifteen thousand Lire, a handsome sum by any measure."

There was a gasp, and then another loud reaction from the crowd, again split into supporters and opponents. The notary held up his hand, gesturing for silence, which slowly descended. When he could make himself heard he continued: "The will of the Councils, as it has been expressed to me, was that this wise and just move in freeing slaves should not be achieved at the expense of any one party, except of the Comune itself which, in turn, believes that former slaves, working as free men and women and paid fairly according to the rules laid down by the guilds, will work more readily, produce more goods, and contribute to the trade and taxes which will swiftly repay the city’s liberality and see its prosperity grow.

"The Comune has therefore set aside fifty thousand Lire for the manumission of the six thousand serfs estimated to be presently owned by some four hundred lords.” This time the sheer scale of the expense planned reduced his audience to a muttering near-silence. He continued: “It is furthermore my contention that the name of every freed slave should be appended to this legal document in order to enshrine and protect their liberty: and that, when it is complete, it should be given the name Liber Paradisus, the Book of Heaven." 

There was another outburst. The elders, representatives of old families, and their allies on the floor expressed their outrage again, snorting with derision at the proposed title. "Book of Heaven? It'll drag us down to hell," shouted one.

"Why," called another, "This notary is declaring himself a priest, speaking for God!"

"He'll be proclaiming himself Pope next!"

Once again it took the Podestà some time to regain a semblance of order, with help from the Capitano del Popolo. "Gentlemen," said the former, "We must now determine how this matter should proceed. I know that the anziani, our elders who for centuries have guided this city, see this change as unnecessary and dangerous, undermining the very social fabric of this city and this traditions." A roar of anger from the consuls and guildsmen greeted this comment. "But," he raised his voice, "I am aware that others do not share this view. Yet we cannot enact law when our College is so bitterly divided. To do so would rend the very fabric of this city and reduce us to warring factions."

"We already have those!" came one shout from the floor.

"Lambertazzi's men are out every night breaking heads!" came another.

"The families are only protecting themselves from you damned gonfalonieri!" bellowed another of the elders. This time it was the Capitano del Popolo who established sufficient quiet to make himself heard. "Gentlemen, amid this furore I believe we cannot even agree to disagree. We must have calm. To resolve this division in the College we must obtain proper counsel: and who better to give a second opinion, I suggest, than another jurist. I call on Dottor Gozzadini to advise us in this matter."

The shouting died down to a rumble, then to a murmur. My master rose to her feet and slowly, deliberately, climbed onto the podium. I suspected this moment had been rehearsed between her and the Capitano. She was calm, serene and, as at her best when lecturing, authoritative.

"Gentlemen of the College," she said, her scratchy voice cutting through that charged atmosphere, "Our leaders, both Podestà and Capitano, are correct. No decision can be made on so weighty a matter when passions are aroused and you are coming almost to blows. Good law may not be created in heat and anger, only in calm and with reason. First, then, I would advise that you calm yourselves." I could not resist smiling. It was as if she were admonishing a bunch of naughty boys: I suspected that she felt she was doing precisely that. 

"Second, this is a long document which cannot be debated line by line by a full meeting of any of the Councils of the Comune: it is simply not practicable. I suggest therefore that the four anziani and four consoli here each nominate one lawyer of their choice, and that those eight be instructed to examine minutely Master de’ Pasaggeri's Liber Paradisus, that they may satisfy themselves that the law proposed therein is not only right and equitable but also capable of being put into statute and made to work: for law, however lofty its intention, must be practical and functional."

Now she had the attention of the whole room: there was not a sound. It was an uncanny effect that she seemed always able to work on crowds, even disagreeable ones. "If what Maestro de’ Pasaggeri has drafted, with my humble assistance, has thus satisfied our fellow jurists, they must say so, publicly and under oath, giving their assurance that this work is well done. Yet, even then, I believe that so mighty a law may not be passed by this College, notwithstanding its gravity." Again disapprobation began to grow. 

"Nor even by any of the larger Councils," she continued. As she reached the end of her proposal, she could barely make herself heard above the growing noise. "I believe this College must call a meeting of the Due Mila, the Council of the Two Thousand, where each man may speak for his part of the city, and where lots must be cast and counted publicly. That way," she raised her voice again, "That way there can be no cheating, no bribery, no coercion." 

As she said these words she looked directly at Lambertazzi. "No vested interest shall sway this, and the true representatives of this Comune shall have their say. That is my advice." 

Now it was clear that the supporters of the new law, not its opponents, were in the ascendency. There were cheers and stamps, roars of approval for my master's proposal, until the rafters rang with the noise. While it continued, I could see the Podestà and Capitano del Popolo in urgent, fierce conversation. It was clear that the Podestà was unwilling to continue: and equally evident that the Capitano would brook no further delay. I was sure I could hear him as I could see his lips move: "Do it. You must do it."

Eventually the Podestà raised both hands, appealing for silence. Slowly, grudgingly, the noisy crowd fell silent. "Very well," declared the Podestà. "Though I personally retain grave reservations about the wisdom of this proposal to change our law, it has been drafted and endorsed by two of our most esteemed lawyers.  The means of determining the outcome has been suggested, again by a respected authority. I shall call a meeting of the Two Thousand four weeks from this day, and at that meeting lots shall be cast and counted to determine the outcome. 

“In the meantime, eight jurists shall be nominated to examine the document, as the Magister recommends, and at the meeting of the Two Thousand they shall be required to give their opinion as to the worthiness of this document. If they declare it fit to be enacted, then the vote will be taken as to whether it should be passed. And now, I declare this College closed."

There was a sigh of relief followed by the distinctive sound of forty opinionated men all speaking at once as the Podestà and the Capitano stepped down from the dais and made for the door, closely followed by the consuls and elders. The two lawyers remained together, in intense conversation. As he walked past them, Lambertazzi stopped abruptly and turned to them. "Have a care, you two scribblers," he hissed. "You may pull this College hither and thither with your clever words: but remember where the true power lies in this city – where it has always lain. It will take more than the machinations of two word-twisters to wrest power from those who have ruled this city for centuries. Have a care, I say, lest you find yourselves without friends and unprotected."

"Is that a threat, Signor Lambertazzi?" asked my master. Her tone was sardonic, mocking.

"Only a fool fails to see the snares he sets for himself. Or herself." He snarled, turned on his heel and left.

"He is right in one thing, Bettisia," sighed Master Rolandino. "You should take care, and refrain from provoking the great families."

"Bah!" she replied. "He is both powerful and dangerous, I grant you. But he does not control all the great families: the Geremei are with us, for example, though the head of that family was not here today."

"Nonetheless, I beseech you. Be careful," urged her friend.

"I shall. You know I am never reckless, old friend." She smiled and turned to me. "Come, Lorenzo. I did not need your assistance after all, but at least you were able to enjoy that… performance. Now let us go home. I am weary."



Dicing with death 

It was late afternoon, and most members of the college had dispersed. My master and I made our way through the busy streets as the shadows lengthened. We did not talk. She was clearly tired, while I was perturbed, at a loss to know whether she had put herself in further danger by ignoring Lambertazzi's threats, or whether they were as empty as she appeared to believe. 

It was as well that we were not conversing: otherwise I might not have heard the running footsteps behind me. I had been taken by surprise from the rear once before, on my first day in Bologna's crowded streets: since then, I had received the benefit of intense and exhaustive training from my two teachers, and would not be caught out a second time.

Instinctively I barged into my master, shoving her against the wall, and turned to my right so that I protected her with my body. I had just time to see a man running at me as a knife in his right hand stabbed at my belly. Thanks to Sordello's training, I did not have to pause to consider my reaction. With my left hand I pushed his knife-hand away from my body. Turning to my right, I drew my own knife as I stepped into him and stabbed upward under his ribs. My knife must have pierced his heart, for he went instantly limp and fell away from me, his weight tearing my knife, still stuck in his body, from my grip.

Before I could relax, a forearm was clamped against my throat. My left arm was pinioned, my right unable to loosen the pressure that was preventing me from breathing. Only as I realised that I was dealing with a second attacker did I consciously remember Sordello’s stricture: "Be like a wild animal. Kill or be killed." Unable to break that grip on my windpipe, I hurled myself backwards. My assailant was not expecting that move and was flung back against the wall (mercifully my master must have discerned my ploy and moved out of the way). There was a grunt, and the grip on my throat loosened momentarily. 

I wriggled free and turned to face my attacker. He was older and bigger than I, and I knew that only speed would save me, since I would certainly lose any trial of strength. I had no weapon now so, calling to mind Michele’s lessons in the uglier forms of street-fighting, I feinted with my fist and kicked him in the groin. Surprised, he doubled over in pain. As his head went down I seized it in both hands, pushed it up and away from me and thumped it hard against the wall. His hands came up, battering my chest and face but I would not let go. 

With all the strength I could muster I kept smashing his head against the wall, time after time until the bricks were red with his blood. Eventually he managed to land one stinging blow on the side of my head and I staggered back, dazed. He seized his opportunity and ran away down the street, scattering bystanders as he pushed them to one side, swiftly disappearing down a side-alley. I was too breathless, dizzy and bewildered to follow him. 

A crowd had gathered, forming a circle and staring at me. I was covered in blood: some of it was mine, and some my second assailant’s, but most came from the man I had killed. To my left stood my master, pale and breathing heavily, but composed. While I stood and puffed, she took charge. "You!" she cried, pointing to one of the bystanders. "Do you know who I am?"

"I do, Magister," he replied. "Everyone knows you."

"Good. Then run to the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo. Demand to see the Capitano in person, tell him what has happened and ask him to send one of his sergeants. Tell him I will attest that my servant killed this man and wounded another while preserving my life. And that I will see him tomorrow … personally. Do you understand? Now go." 

As ever her natural authority brooked no disagreement. The man ran off and the other bystanders gradually moved on, leaving a respectful, or perhaps fearful, space around the body that was still leaking its life-blood onto the ground.

"You had best retrieve your knife, Lorenzo. It served you well."

"Magister, I..." I simply could not find the words.

"You did well, Lorenzo. Very well. Sordello will be proud of you. And I am... grateful.

When we eventually arrived back at the house there was uproar. Michele, Mamolo and Sordello were all beside themselves with a mixture of rage and guilt. They scolded my master and me for putting ourselves at risk, for being out in that dangerous street and, above all, for being nearly killed. Then they heaped blame on themselves for not being there to help and finally started blaming us again.

For a moment I was offended. Had I not put into practice all that training they had given me, and saved her life? Soon I did not care, as I started to shake and feel dizzy. So busy were the other men with their recrimination that they did not notice: but the Magister did. With that uncanny knack of hers, she cut through the hubbub and ordered sharply, "Lorenzo. We should go upstairs and have a cup of wine. Mamolo, bring us some food. It has been something of... a day."

As always, when The Magister took command, the whole household responded. She led the way up the rickety stairs to what I always referred to as her chamber, though it was the only room on the first floor. As I followed her I stumbled, feeling suddenly weak. I felt Sordello's hand under my left arm, gripping me tight and supporting me. In my ear I heard his voice, speaking quietly so that only I could hear: "You did well, Lorenzo. Very well. We’re all upset because we weren't there: but I thank God that you were."

In her room the large table was covered as usual with manuscripts. When these were thrown unceremoniously into a corner of the room, my master uncharacteristically failed to protest. I looked at her in wonder: even she, never known to be flustered, had been shaken by the experience. Then, as she had ordered, Mamolo and Michele loaded the table with food. Fortunately the former could produce a meal – hams, cheeses, fresh bread and olives – at a moment's notice. To my surprise my master tucked in more hungrily than I had ever seen her. She caught my gaze and smiled: "We have had a shock, Lorenzo. Eat and drink heartily, and the effect will pass."

As always, she was right. I helped myself from an enormous platter full of food and then, uniquely, the Magister ordered not only Sordello but also Mamolo and Michele to sit and eat. "Come," she said, "Let us eat together and celebrate our deliverance. My deliverance, I should say. Thanks to this brave young man. Lorenzo, I salute you." She raised her cup to me and the others followed suit. I was abashed, nonplussed. It was, I think, the proudest moment of my life until then, to receive such praise from the people I regarded as my family and, above all, from the woman who was to me mother, father, master and teacher.

Even she could not resist some gentle mockery, however. Looking at me quizzically she commented, "Heavens! Is Lorenzo lost for words? Come, my friends," she added with a twinkle, "Let us make the most of this... unaccustomed silence."

To my astonishment Michele, who rarely entered the master's chamber and never, in my experience, spoke when he did, addressed me directly: "They thay you did well, boy."

"It was pretty knife-work, certainly," interrupted Sordello. I was amazed at the flow of compliments. 

"Bah! Kniveth: nathty thingth,” he lisped. “I wath talking about the other chap: that wath good bare-handed fighting. Though I'm thorry you didn't kill the bathtard." 

I shrugged. "I'm sorry, Michele. I mean, I'm sorry I let him get away: he slipped out of my hands."

"You did what you needed to – and that'th to thave thith one." He nodded at the Magister.

"But I'm frustrated that I let him escape," I continued. "We could have found out a lot from him."

"You would have learnt little or nothing," interposed my master. "They will have been hired killers, not a regular part of anyone's household. And we would not have been able to complete the chain linking him to the person who gave the orders."

"Lambertazzi!" I exclaimed. Of course it was he.

"Or Bardi, at his behest," suggested Sordello. "It makes no odds. We know who it was, but even capturing an accomplice would not have proved it to us. We know those two are planning every kind of skulduggery, yet we can prove nothing. Any word from your friends in Modena?"

I shook my head. "Not a peep, yet: though they won't let me down. If there's anything to be found, they will find it."

"That may be, but we cannot sit on our hands doing nothing while our enemies regroup. We must uncover something."

A hush descended heavily in the room. A feeling of dread, and of inevitability, stole over me as an unwelcome thought grew in my mind. Finally the understanding dawned on me that I could no longer remain on the fringe of these intrigues. I knew that I must commit myself fully and put myself at greater risk than merely acting as bodyguard to one of the main protagonists, even though that lowly role had already proved more hazardous than I had imagined. 

I felt the silence press in upon me and, eventually, it was I who broke the silence, my voice sounding odd - distant, almost as if from a stranger - because I volunteered the suggestion against my better judgement. "We must get inside the Lambertazzi tower,” I said, reluctantly. “They know both of you. So it must be me. I will do it," I looked at Sordello. "And you must get me in, somehow." 

My master looked up in alarm. “Lorenzo, you nearly died once in that tower. Will you seek torture and death there again?”

I laughed humourlessly. “No, Magister. I don’t seek any such fate. But I am a nobody. When Bardi threatened Sordello he didn’t even glance at me. Neither he nor Lambertazzi could possibly recognise me as the street urchin they took for a spy nearly three years ago. The magnati and their circle take no notice of mere entertainers, so there’s little chance of anyone connecting me with you.”

“But a possibility, nonetheless. I will not permit it.”

“He may indeed fall into a trap.” Sordello’s tone was more earnest, more considered than I had ever heard it. “But we have had no success in any other direction, and no word from Lorenzo’s friends in Modena. So perhaps we have to take that chance. But, Lorenzo,” he looked me in the eye: “You know what those devils are capable of. You have suffered once at their hands. Do not go into this lightly: you must weigh the cost to you if it goes amiss. No one will think the worse of you if you consider the risk unacceptable.”

I confess that a sense of dread overcame me. He had offered me a way out. I could heed my master’s words, and Sordello’s warning, and abandon my plan as sheer foolishness. Again a hush fell on our company, a silence that was unsupportable. Again my voice sounded not like mine at all, as if it came from elsewhere, somewhere outside me. “No,” I said, the words booming in my head. “I must do this. I don’t fully know why. But I must. And I will.”  

So it was decided, though not without a great deal of muttering from all the menbers of the household. In the end, it was easily arranged, too. Naturally no group of musicians gaining access to the Lambertazzi family towers might be associated with Sordello: Bardi’s threat had made that clear. But all the families regularly hired in musicians for their feasts and banquets (which were frequent), unless the household kept its own musicians, a rare thing indeed. Thus all Sordello had to do was to use his contacts to find a relatively obscure troupe of musicians whom I could join the next time the Lambertazzi required one.

All fell into place swiftly. Within a day Andrea, whom Sordello had deputed to put the plan into operation so that he was not seen to be involved in any way, came back with the news that, the very next week, the family would be celebrating the name-day of Massimo Lambertazzi's wife, the matriarch of the dynasty. One of his old musical friends had been booked, and there was no difficulty, once some coins had changed hands, in substituting me for another singer.

We rehearsed together once in advance of the event. I cannot claim that we were good: there again, none of the families at whose feasts we performed listened to a note we sang. I have rarely compromised on musical standards: but I may have bent my principles on this occasion.

Deeming ourselves competent, we arrived at the Lambertazzi tower, ready to go through the usual routine, beginning with that endless climb. To our surprise, we were directed to another of the consorteria's adjacent towers. This cheered me. Since my mission was to find my way to the great chamber at the top of Massimo Lambertazzi's tower and hope (almost beyond hope) that they may have been careless enough either to omit to lock the great chest or to leave some papers lying around, it would be impossible to achieve if the topmost rooms were full of people. But if the party were in another tower, probably moving between a number of them along those elevated catwalks, my chances of finding myself alone in that room appeared enhanced.

It worked like a dream - almost. Arriving at midday, we knew we were in for a long stint. A midday meal would give way to a somewhat somnolent afternoon and then, when evening fell, the drinking and feasting would begin anew. Even musicians are permitted a break from time to time, so I was confident of being able to snatch an opportunity to conduct my clandestine search. 

We started in one of those attractive little gardens on top of a tower, and could look across the Lambertazzi territory. There were four towers in all, all connected by walkways. That in which I had been so close to death a few years before was the highest by a significant margin. From its immediate neighbour, a distance of only some twenty paces, I could see that it was in poor condition, a fact that surprised me. There were cracks in the stonework, particularly where not one but two walkways from other towers had been attached, their ends rooted in doorways that had been crudely hacked into the stonework. In my time performing with Sordello we had rarely arrived for events during daylight hours, so I had received few opportunities to observe close up just how crudely built the walkways themselves were, too: poorly constructed, rough structures added to overextended stonework; ambition, vanity and perhaps expense all combining to exceed the wealth even of the magnati.

Our performance was adequate. All of us were accustomed to providing music in the background while guests arrived and drank in the rooftop garden: moving down to the host family's great chamber while the principal guests ate; crossing the catwalk to reach the next tower in order to entertain the lesser guests, always squeezed into those rooms that, compared to some of the great halls being built by the merchant class at ground-level, were small, poorly lit and claustrophobic. Yet up here was where the power in Bologna still resided, or believed it did. 

We continued moving around between courses. At one stage I found myself in the room that was my goal so, while I was singing, I was able to spy out the room. There, to be sure, was the great coffer, a heavy oak construction bound with iron, and locked with three padlocks. There was no sign of any discarded paperwork: yet I did not give up hope. I could see that neither Massimo Lambertazzi nor his advisor Bardi was joining in wholeheartedly with the celebrations. Whenever we found ourselves entertaining a group containing those two, they were to be observed in quiet conversation. Perhaps if I could get close, even if I could find no evidence, I might overhear what they were saying.

Suddenly it seemed my chance had arrived. Darkness was falling: we were back in the tower where we had begun: Lambertazzi and Bardi were standing in one corner of the room, deep in discussion. Lambertazzi gestured, a flick of the head: he seemed to be suggesting that they went back to their own tower, which was precisely what they did. My fellow troubadours continued, but they were singing a simple song which did not require the addition of my descant. If I could make my way across and at least overhear what the two were plotting, my mission might be accomplished. 

From the far end of the bridge I watched them disappear into the tower, straight into that chamber. Gingerly I crept across, fearful that the shaky timbers would squeak or groan: but I am light and, whereas it had reared and bucked under Lambertazzi's enormous weight, it took no account of me. As I reached the far side I could hear their voices, speaking low and urgently: "We must conclude it this evening," I heard Lambertazzi say.

"All in good time," came the reply in Bardi's silky, smooth voice. "There is one thing yet to achieve."

I could not resist it. I crept closer, my head in the doorway but still, I reckoned, invisible to the interlocutors. Suddenly a large figure confronted me in the doorway. It was one of Lambertazzi's men: in a flash I recognised him from my previous visit to the tower. He grinned at me, and a fist lashed out, striking me in the face. Pain exploded in my nose, my head struck the wall behind me. Blackness engulfed me.