Writer, musician, educationist
Writer, musician, educationist
SONG FOR A SPY
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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.
Powerless to resist
Darkness. Pain. Blood in my mouth. Something was preventing me from breathing, something wrong with my head. Then light, a light so bright it hurt my eyes. Voices. A confusion of memories. A return to a nightmare. Panic.
A bucketful of water struck me in the face, leaving me wet, spluttering, and very much awake. I felt strangely stiff. A voice, a fat, deep, rumbling voice that I remembered all too well, spoke in front of my face, though I could barely see it for the dazzle of the burning torch held between it and me.
"Our guest is awake, then."
Comprehension and memory returned. I knew whose the face was. And I was afraid, very much afraid, that I knew where I was. I tried to move, but found my arms and legs stretched out to either side. I should have fallen over: no one can stand like that. But I was not truly standing: I was spreadeagled against a wall, the stones pressing into my back and buttocks. I tried to move, but was prevented by ropes biting tightly into my wrists and ankles. I was helpless and realised that I was naked - and in great danger.
Another voice that I instantly recognised cut in: "If he is back with us, then perhaps he will tell us why he is here."
The light moved away from my face. As my eyes adjusted, I recognised where I was: I was indeed in the dungeon where I had been tortured two or three years before, and which had occupied my nightmares ever since. In front of me were the two faces that populated my feverish nocturnal imaginings – and still do, to this day.
"So, as the dog returns to its vomit, the spy returns to my house." The anger in Lambertazzi's voice was unmissable. "Do you take me for a fool? Does that witch who owns you think she can send spies into my house whenever she likes? Does she?" Beside himself with rage, he pushed his face close to mine while drove his fist into my stomach with immense force. Unable to double up as my body begged to do, I could only retch and hang in my bonds.
The oily voice of his advisor interposed, soothing and reassuring. "Calm yourself, Signore. If the ordinarily wise Dottore is so deluded as to send her own servant in to spy on us, she must be at her wits’ end – or else her judgment has entirely deserted her. Which is it, I wonder? May I question this boy?"
"Of course, Bartolomeo. But do not be gentle."
In one hand he held his torch, guttering and smoking. He tangled the other in my hair, pushing my head back tight against the wall. "So, Lorenzo, you have returned to us. Was that always your name, or did you have another one on a previous visit? No matter. We know who you are, whatever you may call yourself: the Magister’s famed choirboy. Yes, I keep myself informed. Besides, you have quite a reputation. Did you really think I would fail to recognise you? You were at Sordello's side when I warned him: and I knew you were listening. Do you regard us both as fools? I think you will regret that."
Lambertazzi broke in again. "Make him tell us what he knows. Let us teach him the meaning of pain."
"Oh, I think we can learn all we need from him before we have our entertainment at his expense. So, young man, the last time you were in here you half-convinced us that your presence was all a misunderstanding. But this occasion, this is more than a coincidence: it is a conspiracy. You will tell me of all your machinations: yours; those of your friend Sordello; and, of course, of your master."
Summoning all the courage I could muster, which was little, I spat the blood out of my mouth and swore at them, muttering all the vilest, filthiest words I could think of, adding, "You will learn nothing from me."
Lambertazzi pushed Bardi aside. Again his massive fist pounded my stomach, and once more I retched, agonised, stretched tight instead of being able to curl my body around the pain.
"On the contrary," came Bardi's even intonation. "You have already told us much. Your very presence here is an act of folly which betrays the desperation of your associates. What were you trying to discover? What our plans were, what plots we might be hatching? Am I right? You need not answer: you are entirely transparent. And you have learned nothing, a fact you may report to the Gatekeeper, if you can still speak when we have finished with you. Though that, I'm afraid, is much in doubt."
"The Gatekeeper?" A tinge of anxiety crept into Lambertazzi's tone. "Is he reporting to the Gatekeeper, not that lawyer bitch?"
"I am unsure, Signore, as yet. You heard the question, boy. Is your master working with the Gatekeeper?"
I tried to shake my head, but that hurt too much. My nose and face throbbed, and I still could not see clearly. Bardi continued. "So you will tell us his identity, and in return we might give you a swift death rather than a slow and painful one. Does that strike you as a bargain?"
But for the severity of my predicament, I might have laughed. It was the most absurd of inquisitions. My miserable attempt at burglary had been a fishing expedition at best: I had discovered nothing. Yet I did not want to let them know that we had nothing beyond a mere suspicion that they were planning to act against the city. As for the Gatekeeper, I had no more idea of his identity than on the day I had first found myself at the mercy of these two. So I shook my head, more slowly this time, reckoning that silence might keep me alive longer than revealing my ignorance.
"Cat got your tongue?" enquired Bardi. He turned to Lambertazzi. "Signore, I suspect this boy knows nothing. We can put him to the torture." Involuntarily my body became rigid at this suggestion. "But Dottor Gozzadini and her circle are unlikely to have trusted so lowly a functionary with such valuable information as the identity of our chief antagonist. Nor with details of their plans - if they have any of substance, which I doubt. Besides, under torture I fear he would merely babble nonsense in order to end his pain."
"Then let us entertain ourselves at his expense. If he has nothing to say," suggested Lambertazzi nastily, "He will not need his tongue. Shall we cut it out, just as a first step? Let me call my boys in. They are adept at this work." As he spoke he held his torch close and ran his right hand over my torso in a proprietorial way that made my flesh creep. “In any case, I should like to observe how this handsome body bears the pain: I think it will stand up well.” His intrusive hand fondled my left buttock, pressed against the wall. “Yes, he will suffer long, and I shall enjoy hearing him scream and beg for release.”
"Hm." Bardi appeared to think for a moment. "Signore, if I may suggest. As I said, I believe this boy has nothing useful to tell us. But he can tell his master, and those for whom she acts, a great deal. No," Lambertazzi reacted anxiously, "He can tell them nothing about our activities. He knows nothing: his silence is a feeble and unconvincing attempt to conceal his ignorance.” I began to despair. He had seen straight through me, and through my witless efforts at guile: he had divined that we knew next to nothing of their scheming, and had even guessed that I had not a clue as to the identity of the Gatekeeper. “But he can bear a message from us. If we were, say, to return him to his friends…"
Again there was a reaction from his master, which Bardi overrode in his urbane manner. "Returned to his friends, as I say, but – how shall I put it? - altered. Would that not send a powerful message that your house, your family is not to be trifled with?" This appeared to arouse Lambertazzi's interest, and something more. He grunted his assent. "Very well," continued the silky voice. "Let us blind him and castrate him as an example to other spies: then return him to his master."
I strained against my bonds, but could do little more than wriggle my toes. My panic was clear for them both to see, and they took pleasure in it. The torch came close to my face again, as Lambertazzi chuckled: "Your face seems changed. I think one of my men broke your nose when they struck you. But we shall send you home in a very different condition."
I hissed my hatred. "I will tell you nothing. I owe the Magister my life, and I will not betray her confidence. No matter what you do to me."
Now it was Bardi’s turn to laugh. "You have nothing of note to tell me. But you will bear a message from Signor Lambertazzi. We shall leave you your tongue, so that you may endlessly express your sorrow and loss. You may even sing them to that bitch, your Magister.” His normally urbane tone had become venomous. “But you will not see light again."
"Be grateful I leave you your life: though you may wish that I had not. Spy! Filth!" Lambertazzi's voice rose from his customary rumble into a near-scream. "And you will tell her why your lost eyes will not permit you to shed tears for them. And why," he gripped my testicles, wrenching them painfully, "Why you will never know the love of woman, the touch of female flesh, because you have lost these. And you may ask her whether your loyalty to her was worth that loss." I gasped in pain as he squeezed and twisted my balls again. Then, abruptly, he released me.
"Enough for now, Signore,” resumed Bardi. “We must return to the festivities. I suggest we finish our dinner and enjoy the music, though without this one to add to it. And, when we have bade our guests farewell, we shall attend to our business with this… spy. Who knows, he may even sing to us!" He wrenched my hair and put his face close to mine. "But it will have to be a fine song indeed, if it is to save your eyes and your balls. Consider well, boy. And ponder what foolishness led you to sacrifice your sight and your manhood in blind allegiance to an overweening notary and a ragtag of tradesmen."
Each carrying his torch, they left my dungeon, plunging me into total darkness, matched by the depths of my despair. I heard their footsteps clatter up the stairs away from me. And I hung in my bondage while my body shook uncontrollably in a paroxysm of terror.
How long I was left there, stretched tight against the wall and unable to move more than my head, I have no idea. I was dazed, and perhaps I drifted in and out of consciousness. A dull ache developed in my shoulders and hips, unused to bearing my weight in that position. Blood was still dribbling into my mouth from somewhere, and I could not breathe through my nose. There I remained suspended, snuffling and spitting. I was in total darkness: the dungeon had not a single window and no glimmer of light penetrated even from where I knew there must be a door and stairs.
It felt like hours later when I heard footsteps. Not the heavy tread of Lambertazzi and Bardi, nor of their henchmen, they were the light footfalls of a child or a girl – and, moreover, one taking considerable care to tread softly. I heard the door open, again with every impression of someone trying to make as little noise as possible. Then came the light of a candle. It came towards me and, as my eyes adjusted, I could see that it was not borne by any man. The bearer of the light was a strikingly beautiful young woman: it was Livia Lambertazzi.
"Livia. My lady..." I stammered. What was there to say?
Her face came close to mine, the candle held in her left hand. "So, pretty Lorenzo. You are here again." It was a statement, not a question. It was as if she were not surprised.
"My lady, how do you know my name?"
"I never forget names. You were here before, years ago. My uncle was determined to kill you but I said you were too pretty to die. And I have seen you in the Duomo, have I not? Looking for me, I expect?" She giggled. Her manner was strange: fey, or perhaps merely drunken? I could not tell which.
"I wouldn't let them kill you that time, Lorenzo. You were too pretty. Had you stayed we might have had fun. But that sour-faced old lawyer took you away. I'm glad she doesn't come here anymore."
"They nearly killed me anyway, my lady. But I thank you for intervening. And, yes, I have been watching out for you in the Cathedral. I think you are very beautiful."
She breathed heavily as she leaned still closer, whispering in my ear, “And I think you want to possess me.”
Love and release
I felt a strange sensation, then realised that she was running the fingers of her right hand over my body as she spoke. "They've made a mess of your face, Lorenzo. I can't see it properly: you're all bloody. And your nose is a funny shape."
I laughed at that, though it hurt. "I know. I can't breathe through it."
"Can you kiss, though? Let us try." And her lips were pressed to mine, her tongue pushing insistently and searching my mouth. I could barely move my head, and nothing else. But I could not breathe while her mouth was clamped to mine. Eventually, after what seemed an eternity of desire which I reciprocated, while nonetheless wrestling with a fear of suffocation, she moved her head away and I sucked in deep, whooping breaths.
"I like kissing you, Lorenzo. Though you taste of blood. I think perhaps I like that, too." Her conversation was like that of a wayward child: but her lips and her hand, which still explored my nakedness, were not those of a child, rather of a knowing woman familiar with a man’s body.
"Why are you here, Lorenzo? Why have you come back? You know they'll hurt you again. They’ll kill you, and I shan't be able to stop them this time. Were you spying again?"
"This time I was, though not the last time. But," I could not maintain the façade of bravery anymore, and my voice cracked as I continued. "They don't want information from me: they know I have none to give. They say they'll blind and castrate me, and send me back to my master as a lesson."
"Poor Lorenzo!" Her tone was not one of genuine anxiety for me, but of the kind that one might adopt to an injured lapdog or a poorly child. "Will they do that to you? Your eyes are lovely." The roving hand moved to my face, carefully avoiding my injured nose yet touching me around my eyes as she stared into them. "And castrate you? Geld you? Like they do to animals?" I nodded heavily, hanging my head in, what? Dread? Shame? I could not tell.
Her hand explored my body again, stroking my chest, even teasing my nipples. "You have a fine body, Lorenzo. You seem fit and strong."
"I suppose I am. Was."
"And will they really..." Her hand crept lower and lower. "Will they really cut these off? These lovely things?" Her hand cupped my balls. "Oh...!"
Her surprise was feigned. She knew what she was doing. How would any young man not respond to those presumptuous fingers, teasing and exploring? I may have been pinioned to the wall, helpless and in mortal fear of maiming or worse: but a beautiful girl was handling the parts that a man prizes dearly, and my reaction was involuntary. She breathed heavily and ran her forefinger the length of my erection. I moaned. Her right hand holding me, her left still clasping the candle, she pressed herself to me and whispered in my ear: "Lorenzo, I want you, you pretty, lovely boy."
She stepped back and, spotting a sconce on the wall, placed the candle in it. Then, standing directly before me, she put her hands to her throat and loosened the laces that held her finely embroidered collar around her slim neck. Impatiently she pulled out the laces down the length of her bodice, pulled it apart and let her dress fall to the floor. She stepped out of it, nude, to my fevered eyes shining like an angel in the flickering candlelight. She was beautiful beyond compare, and I wanted her.
I had never seen a naked woman before. Oh, of course, like all boys I had enjoyed looking at the female forms painted or carved in churches and in the fine houses of the rich. I had chuckled at those many representations of Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden, understanding for the first time the nature of their nakedness: Eve using one hand coyly to shield her bosom while the other concealed the intimate parts of which she had just become aware.
With my friends I had tried to see everything I could of the serving girls we would find in the taverna, the hint of a breast, the flash of a thigh as they climbed the stairs. But here was the girl of whom I had dreamed for years, baring herself before me, more like a harlot than a lady of gentle birth. Women of her class might never fully expose themselves in the act of love, not even to a husband: yet Livia knew what she was doing. Lasciviously, wantonly, she put her hands behind her neck and displayed herself, aping the most shameless of whores displaying her charms. "Am I fair, Lorenzo? Do you desire me?"
As she stood before me in the light of that single candle I greedily drank in the sight of her body. From her high cheekbones downward she was slim, nearly but not quite to a fault, and her skin was pure white. Below her long neck two small, perfectly round breasts rose and fell barely perceptibly with the breathing. Her nipples, like her lips, were pale pink, as if understated. Below her almost impossibly narrow waist her hips broadened in a slight but infinitely seductive curve.
My eyes were drawn to her pudenda, dark hair and shadow combining to conceal a region of mystery to an untried boy like me, and the source of near-insupportable lust. She revelled in my hungry gaze. “Do you not find me pleasing, Lorenzo?” she teased, and turned slowly round so that I could see her straight, jet-black hair fall down her back to the swell of her buttocks, soft, glorious and, bound as I was, to me frustratingly untouchable.
She knew precisely how desirable she was. She had a power over men, and would not hesitate to use it cruelly, without mercy. She had me entirely in her thrall, almost maddened with lust, yet helpless. “Don’t you want me?”
I could barely speak. "My lady," I croaked. "I have never seen anything or anyone so beautiful. Yes, I want you, desperately – but I cannot move." It seemed time to point out my predicament to her.
She pressed her bare body up against me, her lips nibbling my neck, my ears, her hands all over me and then both caressing my buttocks. She began to pant. "I want you, Lorenzo," she murmured. “I want you to have me.”
It is possible to make love in a vertical position and, though I have never been an adventurous lover, I can recall doing so. But to achieve the act, both participants must have their hands free. Livia positioned herself, and tried to manoeuvre herself onto my erection, which by now made me feel as if I must burst. She was gasping – with desire, I presumed, though being inexperienced I could not be sure.
Try as she might, however, she could not manoeuvre herself onto me without my help. The situation would have been ridiculous, laughable, but for the intensity of her desire and my virgin urgency. Moreover, I was still bound to the wall. Even in the depths of passion approaching climax, aware of the danger I was in and of the fact that this might be the first and last time my manhood would be put to use: perhaps that too merely served to add to the piquancy of the overpowering need I was suffering – yet enjoying.
Angrily she pushed herself away from me. "It's no use, Lorenzo," she snapped petulantly. "No use at all."
"Untie me, my lady. Livia. Untie me!" Immediately she reached up to my right wrist, and tried to wrestle with the rope that bound me to a metal staple in the wall.
Breathless she complained, "I cannot do it. I'm not strong enough. The knots are too tight."
"Then cut it," I pleaded. "Find a knife. There must be something. Look for it! Just look!" Her urgency was communicating itself to me now. Then I had an inspiration. "My clothes, my lady. Livia, find my clothes! My knife should be with them."
With an exasperated sigh she grabbed the candle from its bracket and searched the dark room. Sure enough, there were my clothes, boots, shirt, tunic, breeches, thrown aside into a corner. And, thank God, my knife, still attached to my belt.
Livia seized the knife, and returned to face me. The candle, once more on its bracket, threw a feeble, flickering light which illuminated her bust and reflected from the blade which, on Sordello's instructions, I kept wickedly sharp. With that distracted expression to which I was becoming accustomed, she looked at me quizzically. She ran the blade of the knife across my chest, not enough even to scratch, but sufficient to alarm me.
She looked down, my physical desire for her still evident, despite the bizarre situation. She touched the tip of the blade to my balls: “How will they go about cutting these off? Hm.” Even that comment failed to quench my desire. Without warning she leapt to my left wrist and sawed at the rope that held it. Then to the right.
With my ankles still spread far apart and secured to the walls, I could not stand, and fell forward, crying out with pain as the ropes refused to allow my ankles to move. She quickly cut those ropes too, so that I was on all fours, groaning as the blood returned to feet and hands. But there was no time for recovery.
She knelt in front of me and pulled my face hungrily to hers, adding fresh pain to my broken nose as she pressed against it, her lips seeking mine once more, forcing them apart with her tongue. Swiftly she pushed away again, lay back on the hard floor and pulled me urgently to her. Her experienced hands took hold and pulled me inside her, hot and wet with her need.
As all young men know, that first coupling was alarming. As she writhed beneath me, feral and noisy with arousal, I feared my member might be torn from me. Then I was pushing in turn, responding to that same animal urge with no thought but of my own fulfilment. All too quickly, suddenly, it was over. I was spent, breathless, and paused to look at the body beneath me. I ran my hands over that alabaster skin, felt the heavy softness of her breasts and marvelled at the fact that I had finally known this flesh, this goddess, the object of my desire for so long. I leaned forward, rested my head on her shoulder and sighed.
My normal senses began to return to me. I became aware that both her hands were gripping my buttocks, so hard that the nails were digging deep into my flesh. I did not know what to say to her. Had I satisfied her, or had my youth, inexperience and the swiftness of my climax proved disappointing? It was clear I was by no means her first lover.
I pulled out of her: drops of my seed and her arousal glistened on the floor as the candlelight caught them. She stood up abruptly, wordlessly, reached down and started to replace her gown. I knelt in amazement, still looking at her, worshipping her. "I must go," she said again. There were no words of endearment, no promises, no regrets.
"What about me?" I asked.
"You? You had better escape while you can. Do you want them to geld you?"
"No. But, I mean, what happens to us now? Shall I see you again?"
"To escape should be enough for you, Lorenzo. No. I cannot see you again. How could I? If my uncle sets eyes on you he will have you killed. You may not stay in Bologna."
I was feeling brave and reckless. "He will not drive me from this city, nor from you," I replied.
"Then you're a fool," she said. "A bigger fool even than I took you for. I must go. They must not know it was I who released you."
“My lady: if you ever need me, send word. I will come for you.”
“You truly are a foolish boy, pretty Lorenzo. I shall not need you. I look after myself.”
“But if you do. Please heed me. Send word for me at the Magister’s house.”
“Silly boy! I shall not.” Once more she took my face in her hands and kissed me. "Goodbye, Lorenzo." She retrieved the candle and was gone.
I was alone once more. Still naked. Still in pitch darkness. But I was free of my bonds. My hands and feet throbbed as the blood returned to them fully, and other parts of me felt strange. There was something wrong with my nose: still I could taste blood in my mouth, and could not breathe properly. My stomach, too, was sore from the punches it had received. As for my testicles, first tormented by Lambertazzi and afterwards teased by Livia as a prelude to our lovemaking, they produced a dull ache that was not altogether unpleasant.
After that episode with Livia, already receding into the semblance of an erotic dream, the reality of my situation returned to me forcefully. I was still in great peril. I knew I must escape before Lambertazzi, Bardi or their henchmen returned to carry out their threat to rob me of both my sight and the ability to repeat what I had just experienced with Livia. Gingerly I felt my way back to the wall against which I had been bound: sure enough, above my head I could feel the metal ring to which one of my hands had been tied.
So my clothes must be to my right, I reasoned. I felt my way to that corner of the room, falling over objects on the way: a stool here; something metal there, which felt like a brazier, mercifully without the glowing coals that might yet be used in operating on me, but sufficiently jagged to tear my shins. Further to my right, at last, I felt the soft material of my clothes, which had been simply thrown in a heap as I could only presume they had been taken off my unconscious body.
To my joy I even found my shirt, and then my boots. I dressed swiftly and, once stoutly shod, felt less vulnerable. Next I needed to find my knife. That was less easy, for I could not recall where Livia had dropped it after cutting my bonds. There was nothing for it but to search the dark dungeon methodically.
Again feeling the wall from which I started, now I crawled along the floor, my left hand just touching it, my right stretched as far as it would go, while I edged my way along the floor. Once more I collided with unseen objects, some of which fell over with such a crash that I froze in anticipation of the attention the noise might attract. Eventually my fumbling fingers located my knife, which I tucked thankfully into my belt as I stood up.
What now? Escape, of course. It was clear the door was not locked: what need was there, when the prisoner was pinned immobile to the wall? However, to find the door would be another task. I remembered that it was in the corner of the room, on the far side and to the right. I hugged the walls, following the wall of my bondage to the end and then turning left. Sure enough I reached what resembled a large box in the corner and, fumbling around it, eventually located the door and a latch.
With trepidation I opened the door and looked out. It was dark on the other side, too: but not the total blackness of my dungeon. My eyes, by now fully accustomed to the absence of light, could make out the tower’s seemingly endless stairwell. Steps climbed up away from me: my memory from my first unfortunate visit reminded me that there were three or four floors above me, though I could not see that far. As for the downward stairs, I could discern little pools of light in the far distance, presumably where moonlight penetrated the occasional tiny window.
Down it must be: so, tiptoeing as lightly as I could, I began the long descent. It took all of my concentration, with the treads so uneven, to avoid losing my footing in the dark and clattering down a flight or two: some were more like ladders, where I would turn and descend backwards for fear of falling. Though I had to concentrate on every step, I knew I must plan my escape. I guessed my face was covered in blood, so my sudden appearance in the courtyard would immediately arouse suspicion.
A stratagem was suggested to me by the appearance of three or four retainers. Toiling up the stairs under barrels and skins, all presumably full of wine, they made such a clattering and banging that I had plenty of warning of their coming and was able to slip into one of the many storerooms on the lower levels. They were wheezing and cursing as they puffed aloft with their load, directing curses at their employers’ demands for more drink at this late hour. "You'd think they'd have had enough by now," complained one.
"Or had enough brought up earlier so they didn't run out."
"Still," said a third, "I'll be helping myself to a stiffener when I get to the top."
"You've had enough, friend," responded the first. "You want to have a care if we have to go across to one of the other towers with this load. Them bridges wobble enough as it is. I don't care if you fall off: but I don't want you bringing us down with you."
"Relax," came the response. "I've never dropped a barrel, have I? Even when I've had a few."
"Nah, but one day the boss will spot that you’re pissed as a priest on his wine."
"The padrone won't notice: he'll be too busy feeling up the kitchen girls."
"Bardi’ll see. He don't miss nothing."
"What do I care what that nosy bastard thinks? One day I'll tell him what I think to him and his spying ways."
"Yes, you will: and you'll be out of a job and out on your ear – you and that whore you keep. Come on, let's get this over with and then we can all have a drink."
Continuing their good-natured grumbling, they plodded on upwards and I hugged myself in my relief. I reckoned I could bluff my way through the courtyard, and had an idea what I would say if challenged.
When I reached the bottom, I pulled the door ajar and squinted through the gap. There was the same sort of courtyard scene as I had seen when I had been dragged unwilling through it those few years ago. There were a couple of fires, cooking pots, women chattering as they cooked, a few children still running about although it was late (how late? I had no idea). And, thank heaven, few men in sight. Across the courtyard I could just make out what I was looking for so, eschewing all secrecy, I barged the door open and ran in an unsteady gait across to the horse-trough, plunging my head into it and surreptitiously wiping the blood from my face, as far as I could. A couple of the women looked up from their work, and called across sharply: mercifully I could see no men taking any interest.
"What are you doing here?"
"Why are you sticking your head in the trough like that?"
"Are you drunk?"
I slowly stood upright, using my elbows to lean heavily on the trough. In my thickest Bolognese accent, with an added alcoholic slur, I replied, "I might have had a drink or two." I consciously mimicked the lads I had seen heading upstairs. "It'sh good shtuff they're sherving up there. And that bugger Bardi shaysh he wantsh even more! Can you believe it?"
“You idiot!” they cried. “The lads have just taken another load up. You must have bumped into them!”
I looked puzzled. “I fell down a few shtepsh. Knocked me head. Musht’ve mished ‘em.” I shrugged my shoulders. "I don't even know where I am!" I sniggered. "Thish ishn't my tower. Where am I?"
"You fool, you're in Signor Massimo Lambertazzi's tower. Where are you from?"
I waved vaguely at one of the other towers. "Oh, you know, I'm from..."
"Well, you'd better get back there, before there's trouble."
"I'm not fucking climbing all the way back up there. I'll walk acrossh to mine. Can you let me out?"
"Giovanni will," came the reply. "Oi, Giovanni! Let this drunkard out, will you?"
With a grumpy snort an elderly retainer came out of the shadows, holding a large key which he inserted in a lock. "Go on, piss off back to your own tower, and stop bothering me."
"Thank you," I replied, with an extravagantly drunken bow. "It'sh been a pleasure!"
Then I was out the gate, and haring down the road towards my master's house
As I approached, I glimpsed the lights of many torches. From closer I could see a crowd of men heavily armed, spears and other weapons glinting in the light afforded by the torches. Alarmed, I quickened my pace still further. When I arrived at the house I saw there were some forty men in the street outside the house, standing around a fire they had lit in the street for both light and warmth. I started to push through the crowd towards the gate, but was quickly stopped. My arms were seized by two men, while a third confronted me. "Who the fuck do you think you are, pushing through as if you own the place? What’s your business here?"
"I serve the Magister, the jurist Dottor Bettisia Gozzadini. And I might ask in turn what the bloody hell you men are doing here!"
"Less of your impudence. We are here sent by the Capitano del Popolo expressly to guard the Magister. So now we'll just check whether you're known here." And my questioner called to one of his men:"Oi! Daniele! Rouse that old rascal Michele and see if he knows this whippersnapper." The man addressed as Daniele rapped on the gate to be answered by Michele's grumbling tone, a voice and lisp that, after my ordeal and near-mutilation, I could not have been more pleased to hear. "Let me have a look, then. Aye, we know him. The Magithter'th been fair worrying about him thinthe he didn't come home. Let the young idiot in, and he can account for himthelf."
With some reluctance I was released, and found myself in that familiar courtyard which, given that it was the middle of the night, should have been quiet and sleepy: but the whole household was awake. The moment I entered my master appeared on her little balcony, Sordello behind her. Any relief she may have felt at my return was quickly masked by a peremptory order. "Lorenzo, where have you been? We have been... worrying about you. Come up here at once!"
She cares about me, I thought. Suddenly weary, I slowly climbed the wobbly steps.
Both of them were rattled, firing questions at me, chiding me and arguing with one another all at the same time. I held up my hand in a feeble attempt to quiet them so that I could speak. Eventually they became quiet and I said, "I'm tired beyond belief. Might I sit down and have a cup of wine? Then I shall tell you all that has happened." With unusual attentiveness my master led me to a seat and poured wine for me herself. Then I told my tale – leaving nothing out, as I was firmly instructed several times. Except one thing. I told them, of course, that it was Livia who had released me: but I did not feel they needed to know of our particular intimacy after she had cut the ropes that held me. And they laughed at my account of feigning drunkenness in order to bluff my way out of the Lambertazzi gate.
"I still don't understand why the lady Livia should put herself at risk for you. Her uncle would be beside himself with rage."
I shrugged. "She recognised me from before, as they did. And she thinks I'm pretty!" I grinned.
"She has seen you staring at her across the cathedral frequently enough, at any rate," remarked my master, tartly. I was amazed. Yet again she proved that she knew precisely what was going on, even when I thought I had concealed that part of my life from her. “Nonetheless, Lambertazzi's rage will know no bounds if he discovers it was she – as he surely will.”
"She’s unusually strong-willed," I opined. "He’s indulgent towards her."
"Not for much longer, I fear," replied Sordello. "But in any case, we have been fortunate. You’re lucky to have come away in one piece – and not to have lost…, you know." As he gestured graphically, I shuddered.
"Lucky?" interposed my master. "Yes, he is. And we have been very foolish. They knew who Lorenzo was before he even entered their house, and I… castigate myself for putting you in such peril, Lorenzo. They have been running rings around us, mocking us at every step. We are no further forward, and they are in no doubt that we are attempting vainly to uncover their stratagems. They have all the dice in the game, and we have none. And now, we had better do something about that nose of yours."
I was suddenly alarmed. "What will you do with it, Magister?"
"Idiot! They broke your nose. Have you not realised that? We shall have to reset it."
"Will you send for your tame physician?" asked Sordello.
"No, I can do this myself. I must warn you, Lorenzo. There will be pain: but thereafter you will possess something like your old nose, rather than the flattened mess we see now."
"Very well," sighed Sordello. He knelt swiftly behind me, and held my arms and shoulders while the Magister gripped my nose and, it seemed to me, tried to tear it off. I screamed at the agony that shot across my face, and squirmed in Sordello's iron grip. But in an instant, almost miraculously, apart from a residual ache the pain was all but gone.
"There, Lorenzo. I’m sorry to have hurt you, but you will look better. We must protect that nose for a while – a leather mask will do, I think, for a week or two. And then you will look almost as handsome as you did before: indeed, the slight bend in your nose might furnish you with an additional rakish charm. Now, it is dawn, and we should sleep a little. There is much to do today."
Exhausted as I was, I slept little. My rudely re-set nose, indeed the whole of my face, still pained me and, whenever I closed my eyes to sleep, the crazy sequence of the day’s events crowded in upon me: my capture and helplessness; the prospect of mutilation and emasculation; my first experience of knowing a woman, relishing the act of love while terrified of being discovered and consigned to the grisly fate planned for me; the rush and drama of my escape; all crowded in upon me in a cascade of whirring visions and emotions so vivid that, even now, they return to me three-score years later. No, it was not a restful night.
Did I say night? It was already becoming light when we went to bed, so even those who slept can have managed only two or three hours. All too soon we were up again, and planning the next steps.
Yet what step could we plan? We had learnt nothing new about Lambertazzi, except that he and his crony Bardi had known from the start who I was, that I was servant to the thorn in their legal flesh, and had set out to trap me in order to hurt her. The threat to her was now obvious to all, including the Capitano del Popolo who, unbidden, had sent those men-at-arms to protect her house. That guard remained outside the gate, changed regularly, organised and fed itself, so there were no calls on the household, for once depriving Mamolo of an opportunity to grouse about spongers and his inability to feed everyone adequately.
My master's plan had been to push forward the law to end slavery in an attempt to provoke Lambertazzi into hasty action. There could be little doubt as to who was behind the attempt on her life: yet we had no proof of that – nor of any scheming. Exasperated, I asked why there were no other sources of information. “What about the Gatekeeper?” I asked. “If he is at the centre of all the conspiracies, can we not learn from him the details of what Lambertazzi is planning? Surely he would help those on the side of Bologna?”
My master looked uneasy, even evasive. “Information does not travel in… that direction, Lorenzo,” she replied after a pause. “We know how and where to pass on what we know, something I have not shared with you in order to protect you. But we cannot contact the Gatekeeper directly, nor gain advice from that quarter.”
“He seems a fat lot of use, then, “I commented huffily. “I begin to wonder why everyone makes such a fuss about him.”
“He is… what he is, and that is enough.” My master clearly wished to put a stop to the direction our conversation was taking. We carried on, but it was clear to all three of us that we were going round in circles.
A plot is hatched
At last, however, we struck some good fortune. A commotion at the gate announced the arrival of Paolo, Giacomo and Salvatore, clearly determined to make an entrance, while flanked by suspicious guards who were unwilling to let them through until Michele, still theoretically holding the gate, confirmed that they were known and should be admitted.
As we had pondered the situation we were in truth close to losing hope of finding a solution. But my friends’ noisy arrival changed the mood in an instant. Paolo was clearly bursting with news, while his two companions grinned and bobbed respectful bows at my master. They did not know what to make of Sordello: but that was nothing new, for few did. Paolo was determined to make a big entrance. Sweeping a bow at my master, he proclaimed, "Dottore, I have news. In fact, I have such news as you hoped for. I think we have found the link that you seek."
He was all ready to tell us, out loud and in the courtyard, but my master and Sordello were too canny for that. Gesturing him to silence, she beckoned him to join us upstairs in the chamber, from whose doorway we had greeted him. She instructed Mamolo to feed all three of them, which he set about doing with his usual bad grace, leaving the other two downstairs while she sat him at her table.
"So tell me, young man. What is your great discovery?"
"Magister," he looked at me to check that he had used her preferred title this time. I nodded encouragement. "Magister, in these last three weeks we have been to Modena and back four times." He paused and looked at me: "Lorenzo, what happened to your face?"
"Lambertazzi," I replied curtly. "But I escaped. And he will pay."
"By the Holy Virgin and all the Saints!" exclaimed my master, rarely given to summoning beatific aid. "Will you two young men stop preening like peacocks and get to the matter in hand? Now, tell me. Why so long? Why four trips to Modena and back?"
"Simple," he replied. "The first three times we found nothing. We took various goods from Lambertazzi's estates, and other loads on behalf of various families. There was nothing untoward about any of them."
"And the money? Were they taking large sums?"
"Not at all," came the disappointing reply. "They took a few purses of coins for city taxes and for settling the balance on the merchandise. Mainly barrels of balsamico: we brought back a lot of that."
"That might be significant," commented Sordello, but my master gestured him to silence.
"The balsamico may have some small significance, I grant you. It is… impossible to obtain it in the city now.”
“I remember now!” I exclaimed. “That’s what’s been nagging at my memory. At that dinner in Modena, when I was serving at table, the Bishop, Uguzzoni and Bardi were plotting together how to starve Bologna of the balsamico, and push the price up at the same time.”
“Uguzzoni?” Now Paolo’s interest was piqued. “I’ve got things to tell you about someone of that name.”
“Enough, enough!” The Magister sounded weary. “Let us cover the events in the order in which they occurred. You mentioned the balsamico. Perhaps Lambertazzi is accumulating a considerable store of it, either to push the price up or merely to deprive his fellow-citizens of the pleasure of using it. But whichever is his aim, it is merely small mischief. More important, young man, you are certain those barrels were all of balsamico? Nothing else concealed in them?"
"It certainly was the essence, Magister. You know those small barrels they use? There could be nothing much hidden in them. So shall I tell you what we found in the end?"
"Of course, you fool!" I exclaimed. "Get to the point, man!"
Ignoring me he embarked on his tale with relish. “We began to think there was nothing going on. Maybe they didn't trust us, and only let us go with innocent wagon trains. Even the return journeys weren't all balsamico. There were loads and loads, full of stuff just for Lambertazzi and his consorteria. The usual thing: you know, hams, mountains of beautiful hams, flour – they say the grain’s better over that way. Just domestic stuff.
“But after the fourth trip, it all changed. We knew there was a big consignment going out the next day, but we were told we wouldn't be needed. No explanation: they just said they had their own men and didn't need any extra hands. We blustered a bit, saying how much we needed the work, but they got a bit unfriendly. Well, you know the saying: when the devil drives. So we made sure that three of their regular men weren't fit to travel the next day.
"How did you manage that?" I asked. "Let me guess!"
"Of course! What could be easier? We got them drunk, falling-down pissed.” He glanced at the Magister’s face, which was inscrutable: “I mean, begging your pardon. And we managed to slip some bad wine into their cups so they were sick as dogs the next day. They weren't fit to travel."
"And you three just happened to be on the spot when the wagon-masters found they were short-handed?
"Precisely, Lorenzo. Listen to me, and you learn from an expert! Mind you, there was some expense involved: we had to buy them a lot of wine."
Again a sidelong look at my master, who appeared to lose patience once more. "Yes, yes," she responded testily. "We shall settle the score. Get on with it!
"Sorry. Where was I? Yes, we did get on board the last wagon, and had a good look through it as we travelled. But there was nothing: in fact, we were travelling light. A suspicious man might have felt that the goods we were transporting this time were just put in there to make the wagons look full. There was nothing of any worth, nor anything that couldn't be bought in Modena in any case."
"Go on," urged Sordello quietly.
Paolo warmed to his tale. "Well, on the first four trips we'd delivered different wagons to different places, though most went to one big house in Modena. Apparently it belonged to the richest man there whose name was, you know." We almost screamed our frustration at him. "You just mentioned it, Lorenzo. Ug, Ugu..."
"Uguzzoni, you donkey!"
"Yes," said Paolo decisively. "That was it. Uguzzoni. All the wagons went there except one. And that was another strange thing. We took that one to a place we'd never been before: the Bishop's palace. It was odd. For a start, bishops don't do trading."
"So what was in the wagon? What did you deliver to the Bishop?"
"Nothing special. That was what was most peculiar about it. A couple of sides of beef: but why would you transport that from Bologna? Some cheese: they reckon to make better stuff in Modena. We'd made sure we split up when we realised that this was a different kind of load. I stuck with the wagon that was bound for the Bishop's palace. The other two went to Uguzzoni's.
“Well, we get to the Bishop's courtyard and they goad the oxen through, with all the farting and grumbling as they do. So I follow it in, ready to help unload: those sides of beef are heavy. I go round to the front of the wagon, looking as if I want to help but really because I haven't seen what’s stowed at the front: and there's Lambertazzi's foreman and one of the men he keeps closest. They're lifting a strongbox out: it looks heavy, really heavy for its size. They see me looking and turn nasty. Ask me what I’m looking at. So I say nothing: just trying to help.
"Next thing I know, the foreman pulls out a knife, points it at me and says, 'Nothing? Keep it that way. We won't need you from now on. You'll have to make your own way back to Modena. Here's money for it.' And that was it. He gave me about three times what he needed to, paid me off. I didn't see them again. At least, they think I didn’t see them again, because I made sure they didn't spot me watching them."
"Are you sure that box contained money – silver?" asked my master urgently.
"I can't be sure," came the reply. "But it was strong, well made: even those two hefty men were having a job to lift it. And I think there were letters, too. All the way out to Modena the foreman seemed to be hanging onto a satchel. Never took it off his neck, and it looked like documents in it."
"What about your two friends?" Sordello interrupted.
"Yes," I chipped in. "What did they find at the Uguzzoni house?"
"Much the same," replied Paolo. “Giacomo got closer than I did: just the one chest, which he tried to lift. He couldn't open it, of course. It was sealed. But he was sure it must be silver – or gold. Then they were paid off, too – and warned off a bit more unpleasantly. They didn't want us outsiders with them at all."
"A plague on Lambertazzi and all his schemes!" exclaimed the master in a rare outburst. "His minions go where he pleases to send them and we can only run to keep up. So perhaps he is paying money to two people in Modena. Lorenzo told us long ago that the Bishop and Umberto Uguzzoni were thick as thieves. It was the Bishop's scheme – and Bardi’s, if Lorenzo’s memory is to be credited - to hoard and control the supply of balsamico. Why should they not plot on an altogether more ambitious scale? As for any letters, they have been already delivered, and unless we intercept a reply – of which there is little chance – we shall discover nothing. Bah! We are little further forward.” She paused in thought, then looked up at Paolo, that shrewd expression back on her face. “So you did not see what they transported back in those empty wagons?"
"Of course I did," laughed Paolo. "We kept watch on both houses, and soon enough the empty wagon left the Bishop 's palace and went round to the Uguzzoni house. It went inside: the gates closed. We could see nothing. But we could hear a fair bit. It was a heavy load being lifted into each wagon. They made a fair old fuss about it, and there was a lot of clanking. There was certainly metal involved."
"Weapons?" asked Sordello.
"That's what I wondered." Paolo was thoroughly enjoying himself now. "So I had an idea, a stroke of genius if I may say so. Lorenzo, you know that big bell-tower by the cathedral?"
"The Ghirlandia? Of course. We choirboys used to go up a lot. We could see into people's houses. Ah, I see..."
"Precisely. I told you you could learn from me, Lorenzo."
"Oh, get on with it!" exclaimed my master.
"Sorry. Yes, I sent Salvatore up it. He couldn't see into the Uguzzoni place: but he did signal to us when the wagons left. And we positioned ourselves so we could have a good look at them. They really were heavy: the oxen were straining to move them away. The men guarding them were nervous. They set off just before dawn, so they could get clear of the city as soon as it got light."
"But how could Salvatore get into the tower at night?"
"He hid there before they closed it for the night! We gave him a loaf of bread and a blanket. I don't think he slept well!" Paolo chuckled with delight at his ingenuity. "Giacomino managed to get onto the roof of a taverna near the East Gate, so he got a good look down into the wagons without the guards seeing him. There wasn't much to see, of course: everything was in bundles and they tried to muffle the noise with rags and sacking. But there was still metal clanking all the way. Some of the bundles were long. We reckon there were pikes, swords: I’m sure they were weapons."
Sordello exploded. "Why didn't you get word to us so that we could intercept them? You could have hired horses and travelled much more quickly than heavy wagons drawn by oxen.
"We tried," Paolo grimaced. "All day we tried. But we couldn't find any for love nor money. The stables we went to offered excuse after excuse. Someone had made sure that no one leaving Modena travelled faster than those wagons. The next day there was no problem. We did what you say, hired three fast horses and came back here like lightning: but there was no sign of the wagons on the road. Maybe they reached Bologna within the day, though that would have been pushing it with ox-carts. More likely they left the road and hid them up somewhere. We saw no sign of them."
We three listeners groaned our disappointment. Yet another dead end, it seemed. Paolo noticed our change of mood, which seemed to dampen his enthusiasm too. Then he brightened. "I heard news of your friend, too. You know, Lorenzo, your friend Tommaso?"
I had forgotten my old friend once again! "News? What about him? Tell me!"
"We were killing time, waiting for Salvatore to signal that the wagons were on the move. So Giacomino and I did as you asked, and went and asked around the cathedral. Don't worry: we were subtle. We saw a few choirboys in the square and asked them if they knew him. None of them did: until we found one who was a bit older. He remembered him, all right. Remembered you, too: Tommaso’s friend who did a runner. I knew you had a story to tell! Anyway, Tommaso's been gone from the cathedral for a year or two now."
"A year or two?" I was aghast. "What happened to him?"
"Nothing bad that they knew of. But he got a job. And here's another funny thing. They reckon he's working as a clerk – for the Bishop."
"For the Bishop? Did you go and find him?"
"Of course we didn't, you dolt! I'd just been warned off from there: I couldn't show my face again. So there was nothing I could do. We were trying to plan a way of making contact without drawing attention to ourselves, when Salvatore whistled from the tower. You know the rest."
There was a silence, another of those long, heavy pauses while everyone in the room considered how to frame the unpalatable proposal. Then the Magister spoke, slowly and deliberately. I knew what she would say, and dreaded hearing it. "So, we believe that Lambertazzi is buying weapons. He is paying vast sums of money to Uguzzoni and the Bishop of Modena – more, I suggest, than the value even of those wagonloads of arms. He is hiring himself an army, I am sure of it.
"Yet we have still no proof. Not a shred of it. Even if we could find where he is hiding the weapons, that would not be sufficient. We have to find something to link him to Modena. We need a letter, a contract, a promise: or a witness, a traitor perhaps."
She looked me in the eye, unflinching, that stare that bored into me when she chose. "We need that proof, Lorenzo. And you know someone who can obtain it for us."
I knew it to be true, and my heart sank. With that crazy confidence of the young, I did not mind putting my own safety at risk. But now I would have to re-enter Tommaso’s life and, whereas I should have been delighted at the prospect of being reunited with my oldest and closest friend, I feared I would finish by dragging him into the intrigues that had already bemired my other friends and me and imperilling him. Indeed, had I known how much danger I would place him in, nothing would have persuaded me to make that journey.
Rosalia is missing
The next morning we were on our way. It had been agreed that only Paolo and I would travel back to Modena. With fine woollen cloaks hanging from our shoulders, spread out across our horses' rumps, we felt like noble knights going into battle. We aimed to appear well-born young travellers, with fictitious connections to a great family in Bologna. My cloak also boasted a hood in order to hide my face at need, for now I sported a mask – or, at least, a triangle of leather that covered my nose and was tied by a leather thong at the back of my head. This had been carefully sculpted by my master's tame physician to hold my nose in the desired shape while the bone healed. I could not decide whether I looked sinister or comical: from time to time I glanced anxiously at my companion to gauge whether he found it amusing.
I had never ridden a horse before, and it took all my performer's instinct to feign mastery of the beast. I did not like to ask Paolo whether he too was bluffing: he seemed to know what he was about, and I tried to imitate him. With saddlebags stuffed with two days' food and enough silver to pay tolls and bribe the occasional official, we departed.
To begin with we headed due west along the Via Æmilia, the great Roman road down which I had travelled a few years before to start my new life in Bologna. But, when we reckoned we were only an hour or two's travel from our destination (on horseback, at any rate, Modena is only a day's ride away), I pulled up.
"Paolo," I said. "I have a suggestion." A thought had been growing in my mind all day, "Modena and its inhabitants are suspicious of Bologna, and may doubt the intentions of two young travellers coming from there. Why don't we head north for a while, then continue west and enter Modena from its northern gate? We're less likely to arouse suspicion."
He considered for a while, then signalled his assent. So we headed off along a drover's way that looked promising, and indeed it took us between farms and smallholdings for a couple of hours until we came upon a larger track which, like the Roman road to the south, travelled east to west. My thinking had developed further as we rode through this rich farmland, though now bare and stripped after harvest and being transformed by degrees to furrowed strips of ploughed earth.
"Paolo," I said again, "If we take this road east, we might yet be in Modena by early evening. But it may be hard to find somewhere to stay. It occurs to me that, if we quicken our pace a little, I might be able to find the road that heads north-west from the city. If I can find that, I should be able to spot Tommaso's house – at least, his family's place. It would ease my conscience, if we saw them. And we might find a little more about him - and take him news of them."
"I thought this was going to be a two-day trip, but you're certainly stretching it out, Lorenzo," he replied. "Yet you may be right. We don't know that Tommaso will have any evidence: nor yet that he will share it with us or be prepared betray his employer to us." That shook me. Notwithstanding my unease at involving him in our intrigues, I had not stopped to think about where Tommaso's loyalties might lie. In my mind I had been relying on the ties of old friendship: but he would doubtless owe a duty to his employer.
"Precisely," I commented, trying to give the impression that his idea had been in my mind all along. "Let's try it."
We were successful, surprisingly so. Fewer than two hours must have passed before we had found a large track which emerged from the city, now just visible in the distance to our left, and headed away at an angle to our right. I was sure I recognised it, and spurred my mount to the northwest. I had only travelled the road to visit Tommaso's family a few times, but I recognised its gentle undulations (necessarily gentle ones, for we were still amid the flatlands that comprise the colossal valley of the river Po): then came that rise that I remembered and, at its crest, I could see their house. I recalled Tommaso's joy when we first went there: when he first took me to meet his family; when he caught his first glimpse of home and ran all the way to hurl himself into his mother's arms. "That's it, that's the place!" I exclaimed. I urged my horse into a canter in my eagerness to revisit the place where I had briefly known such happiness.
We approached the old farmhouse which, with my more recent experience of living among affluent city-dwellers, I recognised for the first time as truly poor and run down. Our horses’ hooves made a clatter as we pulled up outside, and I spied movement within it. A harsh aggressive voice called from inside, though no face showed: "What would you fine gentlemen be wanting here? No good, I'll be bound. Be on your way!"
I dismounted, as elegantly as I could (another technique I had yet to master) and approached the door. "It's me. Do you not know me? It's Lorenz... I mean, it's Luca, Tommaso's friend. Do you remember me?"
The door was flung open, and there stood two figures etched in my memory from when I first visited. I would have recognised Tommaso's mother and father anywhere: but I was shocked to see how changed they were. Their faces were pinched with poverty and hard work, their hair was grey and even white in places, and they looked older, weary beyond belief. Nonetheless their good-hearted faces burst into smiles. "Luca? Is it really you? How tall and grand you are! And you’ve brought Tommaso with you! Oh..." Then they saw Paolo's face and knew that it was not their beloved son.
Their disappointment was palpable. Paolo descended from his horse and bowed low. Trying to hide her feelings, Tommaso's mother asked, "So do you bring word from our son, Luca? How is he?"
"In truth, we have not seen him, though we are on our way to do so. We have come straight from Bologna, where my master is a lawyer, a famous notary," already I could see that I was describing a world completely alien to theirs. "But we had to make a detour, so we came to see you first." Again that look of disappointment. I tried to take the conversation in a more positive direction. "As I say, we are on our way to see him. We hear that he is now an important man, working as a clerk for the Bishop."
"Indeed," added Paolo, sensing the situation. "It was I who told Lorenz... Luca," he gave me a searching glance, "Of this. I was in Modena just last week and heard news of him, although I did not speak to him in person."
"But we shall see him tomorrow,” I added. “And can take to him any messages that you would like. Meanwhile, might we stay the night with you? Of course we'll pay for our board."
With something of the old mixture of briskness and warmth that I remembered, Tommaso's mother wouldn't hear of payment, returning to her old insistence that "a friend of Tommaso's is a friend of ours, and always welcome." Then she brightened. "You must meet our girls again, Luca. They have grown almost to young women since you were here last. Rita! Maria! Come and see who's here. It's Luca."
On my previous visits, the two youngest girls had hurled themselves on me. Now they were infants no longer, but slim girls on the brink of womanhood. They emerged shyly from the house, but their embrace was warm, and then they bowed gravely to Paolo who returned the greeting. Yet someone was missing.
A sense of foreboding struck me. "And what of Rosalia? Is she well?" A shadow fell across the faces of all four.
"She is... she has... employment elsewhere. We shall speak of it when you have eaten. Come, see to your horses. Wash yourselves from your journey and then we shall eat and talk. You must have much to tell us, for we have heard nothing of you since Tommaso said you left Modena."
As twilight fell, Tommaso's father went to see to his livestock while we fed and watered the horses. Tommaso's mother busied herself with a cooking-pot, all the time chivvying her daughters as mothers do, and before long we were sitting down to eat, six of us squeezed around a table near a fire in the chimney: at this time of year it was too chilly to sit outside as I had done with Tommaso on our summer visits. We ate a stew fortified with beans: if there was any meat in it I did not find it. We broke coarse brown bread. It was the food of hardship endured, not of harvest celebrated. A shadow hung on the place and the family, and, when we had eaten and politely expressed satisfaction, I could bear it no longer. "Tell me, Signora. What news of Rosalia?"
Tommaso's father coughed and stared at the embers of the fire. The two girls looked at one another but were also silent. It fell to his mother to reply. "She is – we believe she is near Modena, working for the overseer, the bailiff of our landlord. She... it had to be that way. He came for the rent, you see." She seemed unable to continue.
Her husband's voice broke in harshly. "That short-arsed bastard Cortino came at harvest, demanding even more rent than usual, and the usual tithe. Did you know it had been a poor summer? Most of the crops failed after all that unseasonal rain. We have always managed to find the tithe, which leaves us little enough to live on over the winter. But the bigger rent? We had no money. So he cast his eyes on Rosalia. The scum, he's always wanted..."
"Hush!" his wife interrupted. "He proposed that Rosalia should go with him and, by working in his house, pay the rent in kind. My husband refused, of course," she said with an indulgent smile. "That's how fathers are. Rosalia was more practical."
"As she ever was," added her father in a broken voice. "She looked at me and told me not to fuss. 'It must be this way, father,' she said to me. Then she went with him, holding her head high as she walked in her bare feet, holding onto the stirrup of that bastard's horse. And I did nothing. I sold my daughter into slavery."
"Not slavery, husband. You know it is not. It is but the payment of a debt, and she will return to us when it is paid. Yet I fear for her. I fear for her safety among those rough men. And I pray to God every day to return her safe to us."
Maria and Rita were holding one another and looking at me with their big eyes. "If that bastard has laid a finger on her,” grated her father, “I'll..." His wife put a hand on her husband's, and hushed him.
The table fell silent. We avoided catching one another's eye. A monstrous injustice had been perpetrated on the family, and the wrong of it hung in the air. To me it felt like a reproach. I had been leading my exciting city life, congratulating myself on the way I was mixing with the rich and the powerful. I had given barely a thought to my friends, the only real friends I had known before I made my new life in Bologna. And all the while they had been suffering grinding poverty, the viciousness of a crooked bailiff and the loss of their beautiful daughter. I could still picture the first time I saw her, that red hair glowing in the sunset, the eyes fixed on mine and the love in her regard for her brother, so readily shared with me.
I found myself suddenly speechless: the words would not come. At last I managed to say, thickly, "I will find her for you. I swear I will return her to you."
I prayed that it would not prove to be yet another of the promises I had made in my life and failed to keep.
There was no singing that night. We were tired after our journey, and the family seemed exhausted, though whether by loss and sorrow or by sheer physical labour it was impossible to tell. We young men slept in the barn with the animals, but with fresh straw for our bed. That is how it was done then, and still is in country areas.
Wearied from our long journey and from my own lack of sleep, I slept soundly for a few hours. But soon, too early, I was awake again, not least because my body was starting to complain about spending a day on horseback. My bottom felt bruised beyond belief while my thighs, unaccustomed to straddling a mount, were stiffer and sorer than ever Michele’s exercise regime had made them. As I tossed and turned, vainly seeking a comfortable position, I turned over in my mind the tidings I had heard of Rosalia. I pictured that warm smile, those full, soft lips which, now I was a man rather than a boy, I realised I had been longing to kiss, and that lustrous hair falling in deep red coils (as I pictured them) to her waist. And then I imagined her in her current situation: ill-treated, worked day and night and, I feared, abused and even raped by Uguzzoni's bailiff. The thought was unbearable. Yet I had no idea what to do.
I was in no doubt that Cortino's action was illegal. Under the laws of Bologna – and I guessed it must be the same in Modena, since that city was now ruled by its more powerful neighbour – no free person could be bonded or enslaved for a debt. Nor, indeed, could any such arrangement be made, if at all, without proper legal process and written contract: that much I had learnt from working for my master. Yet Uguzzoni, the landlord sitting on his vast wealth, would have no interest in the detail of how his bailiff collected the rents, so long as his wealth continued to grow. And Cortino himself would ensure that the books added up: I was certain of that. He would extort extra rent from the next few farms, while making the most of his hold over Tommaso's family and his power over Rosalia.
It was equally clear to me that Cortino had been planning this for some years. He would have had an eye on Rosalia since she was a child, watching her grow to womanhood and waiting for his chance, the first bad harvest, when he could threaten her family, as he had surely done to others before them. He probably calculated that Rosalia would willingly, generously, sacrifice herself to save her family and her younger sisters from being thrown off the land. It was so simple and, in the scale of things, just another small, mean act characteristic of the world controlled by the great landowners and particularly typical of their venal henchmen: they readily enriched themselves and extorted creature comforts while ensuring that their aristocratic patrons also saw their fortunes increase year on year.
What would Uguzzoni care about a little embezzlement here, a private deal there? He was already as rich as Croesus, and constantly becoming wealthier, which was why he was also prepared to play political games with the Bishop in Modena and Massimo Lambertazzi in Bologna. Dangerous games, certainly: but likely in the end to bring him still more money, even greater power. I ground my teeth and determined to bring down both Cortino and Uguzzoni, if it was the last thing I did.