Authors: Oliver Bowden
Tags: #Adventure, #Fantasy, #Thriller
While I thought that I was learning how to live,
I have been learning how to die.
- Leonardo da Vinci
Torches gleamed and flickered high on the towers of the Palazzo Vecchio and the Bargello, and just a few lanterns shimmered in the cathedral square a little way to the north. Some also illuminated the quays along the banks of the River Arno, where, late as it was for a city where most people retired indoors with the coming of night, a few sailors and stevedores could be seen through the gloom. Some of the sailors, still attending to their ships and boats, hastened to make final repairs to rigging and to coil rope neatly on the dark, scrubbed decks, while the stevedores hurried to haul or carry cargo to the safety of the nearby warehouses.
Lights also glimmered in the winehouses and the brothels, but very few people walked the streets. It had been seven years since the then twenty-year-old Lorenzo de’ Medici had been elected to the leadership of the city, bringing with him at least a sense of order and calm to the intense rivalry between the leading international banking and merchant families who had made Florence one of the wealthiest cities in the world. Despite this, the city had never ceased to simmer, and occasionally boil over, as each faction strove for control, some of them shifting alliances, some remaining permanent and implacable enemies.
Florence, in the Year of Our Lord 1476, even on a jasmine-sweet evening in spring, when you could almost forget the stench from the Arno if the wind was in the right direction, wasn’t the safest place to be out in the open, after the sun had gone down.
The moon had risen in a now-cobalt sky, lording it over a host of attendant stars. Its light fell on the open square where the Ponte Vecchio, its crowded shops dark and silent now, joined the north bank of the river. Its light also found out a figure clad in black, standing on the roof of the church of Santo Stefano al Ponte. A young man, only seventeen years old, but tall and proud. Surveying the neighbourhood below keenly, he put a hand to his lips and whistled, a low but penetrating sound. In response, as he watched, first one, then three, then a dozen, and at last twenty men, young like himself, most clad in black, some with blood-red, green or azure cowls or hats, all with swords and daggers at their belts, emerged from dark streets and archways into the square. The gang of dangerous-looking youths fanned out, a cocky assuredness in their movements.
The young man looked down at the eager faces, pale in the moonlight, gazing up at him. He raised his fist above his head in a defiant salute.
‘We stand together!’ he cried, as they too raised their fists, some drawing their weapons and brandishing them, and cheered: ‘Together!’
The young man quickly climbed, catlike, down the unfinished façade from the roof to the church’s portico, and from it leapt, cloak flying, to land in a crouch, safely in their midst. They gathered round, expectantly.
‘Silence, my friends!’ He held up a hand to arrest a last, lone shout. He smiled grimly. ‘Do you know why I called you, my closest allies, here tonight? To ask your aid. For too long I have been silent while our enemy, you know who I mean, Vieri de’ Pazzi, has gone about this town slandering my family, dragging our name in the mud, and trying in his pathetic way to demean us. Normally I would not stoop to kicking such a mangy cur, but -‘
He was interrupted as a large, jagged rock, hurled from the direction of the bridge, landed at his feet.
‘Enough of your nonsense,
,’ a voice called.
The young man turned as one with his group in the direction of the voice. Already he knew who it belonged to. Crossing the bridge from the south side another gang of young men was approaching. Its leader swaggered at its head, a red cloak, held by a clasp bearing a device of golden dolphins and crosses on a blue ground, over his dark velvet suit, his hand on the pommel of his sword. He was a passably handsome man, his looks marred by a cruel mouth and a weak chin, and though he was a little fat, there was no doubting the power in his arms and legs.
, Vieri,’ the young man said evenly. ‘We were just talking about you.’ And he bowed with exaggerated courtesy, while assuming a look of surprise. ‘But you must forgive me. We were not expecting you personally. I thought the Pazzi always hired others to do their dirty work.’
Vieri, coming close, drew himself up as he and his troop came to a halt a few yards away. ‘Ezio Auditore! You pampered little whelp! I’d say it was rather your family of penpushers and accountants that goes running to the guards whenever there’s the faintest sign of trouble.
‘ He gripped the hilt of his sword. ‘Afraid to handle things yourself, I’d say.’
‘Well, what can I say, Vieri,
. Last time I saw her, your sister Viola seemed quite satisfied with the handling I gave
.’ Ezio Auditore gave his enemy a broad grin, content to hear his companions snigger and cheer behind him.
But he knew he’d gone too far. Vieri had already turned purple with rage. ‘That’s quite enough from you, Ezio, you little prick! Let’s see if you fight as well as you gabble!’ He turned his head back to his men, raising his sword. ‘Kill the bastards!’ he bellowed.
At once another rock whirled through the air, but this time it wasn’t thrown as a challenge. It caught Ezio a glancing blow on the forehead, breaking the skin and drawing blood. Ezio staggered back momentarily, as a hail of rocks flew from the hands of Vieri’s followers. His own men barely had time to rally before the Pazzi gang was upon them, rushing over the bridge to Ezio and his men. All at once, the fighting was so close and so fast that there was hardly time at first to draw swords or even daggers, so the two gangs just went at each other with their fists.
The battle was hard and grim – brutal kicks and punches connected with the sickening sound of crunching bone. For a while it could have gone either way, then Ezio, his vision slightly impaired by the flow of blood from his forehead, saw two of his best men stumble and go down, to be trampled on by Pazzi thugs. Vieri laughed, and, close to Ezio, swung another blow at his head, his hand grasping a heavy stone. Ezio dropped to his haunches and the blow went wide, but it had been too close for comfort, and now the Auditore faction was getting the worst of it. Ezio did manage, before he could rise to his feet, to wrestle his dagger free and slice wildly but successfully at the thigh of a heavily built Pazzi thug who was bearing down at him with sword and dagger unsheathed. Ezio’s dagger tore through fabric and into muscle and sinew, and the man let loose an agonized howl and went over, dropping his weapons and clutching at his wound with both hands as the blood belched forth.
Scrambling desperately to his feet, Ezio looked round. He could see that the Pazzi had all but surrounded his own men, penning them in against one wall of the church. Feeling some of the strength returning to his legs, he made his way towards his fellows. Ducking under the scything blade of another Pazzi henchman, he managed to connect his fist to the man’s stubbly jaw and had the satisfaction of seeing teeth fly and his would-be assailant fall to his knees, stunned by the blow. He yelled to his own men to encourage them, but in truth his thoughts were turning to ways of beating a retreat with as much dignity as possible, when above the noise of the fight he heard a loud, jovial and very familiar voice calling to him from behind the Pazzi mob.
, what the hell are you up to?’
Ezio’s heart pounded with relief, and he managed to gasp, ‘Hey, Federico! What are you doing here? I thought you’d be out on the tiles as usual!’
‘Nonsense! I knew you had something planned, and I thought I’d come along to see if my little brother had finally learned how to look after himself. But maybe you need another lesson or two!’
Federico Auditore, a few years Ezio’s senior and the oldest of the Auditore siblings, was a big man with a big appetite – for drink, for love and for battle. He waded in even as he was speaking, knocking two Pazzi heads together and bringing his foot up to connect with the jaw of a third as he strode through the throng to stand side by side with his brother, seeming impervious to the violence that surrounded him. Around them their own men, encouraged, redoubled their efforts. The Pazzi on the other hand were discomfited. A few of the dockyard hands had gathered at a safe distance to watch, and in the half-light the Pazzi mistook them for Auditore reinforcements. That and Federico’s roars and flying fists, his actions quickly emulated by Ezio, who learnt fast, very quickly panicked them.
Vieri de’ Pazzi’s furious voice rose above the general tumult. ‘Fall back!’ he called to his men, his voice broken with exertion and anger. He caught Ezio’s eye and snarled some inaudible threat before disappearing into the darkness, back across the Ponte Vecchio, followed by those of his men who could still walk, and hotly pursued by Ezio’s now triumphant allies.
Ezio was about to follow suit, but his brother’s meaty hand restrained him. ‘Just a minute,’ he said.
‘What do you mean? We’ve got them on the run!’
‘Steady on.’ Federico was frowning, gently touching the wound on Ezio’s brow.
‘It’s just a scratch.’
‘It’s more than that,’ his brother decided, a grave expression on his face. ‘We’d better get you to a doctor.’
Ezio spat. ‘I haven’t got time to waste running to doctors. Besides…’ He paused ruefully. ‘I haven’t any money.’
‘Hah! Wasted it on women and wine, I suppose.’ Federico grinned, and slapped his younger brother warmly on the shoulder.
‘Not wasted exactly, I’d say. And look at the example
set me.’ Ezio grinned but then hesitated. He suddenly became aware that his head was thumping. ‘Still, it wouldn’t hurt to get it checked out. I suppose you couldn’t see your way to lending me a few
Federico patted his purse. It didn’t jingle. ‘Fact is, I’m a bit short myself just now,’ he said.
Ezio grinned at his brother’s sheepishness. ‘And what have you wasted yours on? Masses and Indulgences, I suppose?’
Federico laughed. ‘All right. I take your point.’ He looked around. In the end, only three or four of their own people had been hurt badly enough to remain on the field of battle, and they were sitting up, groaning a bit, but grinning too. It had been a tough set-to, but no one had broken any bones. On the other hand, a good half-dozen Pazzi henchmen lay completely out for the count, and one or two of them at least were expensively dressed.
‘Let’s see if our fallen enemies have any riches to share,’ Federico suggested. ‘After all, our need is greater than theirs, and I’ll bet you can’t lighten their load without waking them up!’
‘We’ll see about that,’ said Ezio, and set about it with some success. Before a few minutes had elapsed, he’d harvested enough gold coins to fill both their own purses. Ezio looked over to his brother triumphantly and jingled his newly claimed wealth to emphasize the point.
‘Enough!’ cried Federico. ‘Better leave them a bit to limp home on. After all, we’re not thieves – this is just the spoils of war. And I still don’t like the look of that wound. We must get it seen to double quick.’
Ezio nodded, and turned to survey the field of the Auditore victory one last time. Losing patience, Federico rested a hand on his younger brother’s shoulder. ‘Come on,’ he said, and without more ado he set off at such a pace that the battle-weary Ezio found it hard to keep up, though when he fell too far behind, or took a wrong turn down an alley, Federico would hold up, or hurry back to put him right. ‘I’m sorry, Ezio. I just want us to get to the
as soon as we can.’
And indeed it wasn’t far, but Ezio was tiring by the minute. Finally they reached the shadowy room, festooned with mysterious instruments and phials of brass and glass, ranged along dark oak tables and hanging from the ceiling along with clusters of dried herbs, where their family doctor had his surgery. It was all Ezio could do to remain on his feet.
Ceresa was not best pleased at being roused in the middle of the night, but his manner changed to one of concern as soon as he had brought a candle close enough to inspect Ezio’s wound in detail. ‘Hmmn,’ he said gravely. ‘You’ve made quite a mess of yourself this time, young man. Can’t you people think of anything better to do than go around beating each other up?’
‘It was a question of honour, good doctor,’ put in Federico.
‘I see,’ said the doctor, evenly.
‘It’s really nothing,’ said Ezio, though he felt faint.
Federico, as usual hiding concern behind humour, said, ‘Do patch him up as best you can, friend. That pretty little face of his is his only asset.’
!’ Ezio hit back, giving his brother the finger.
The doctor ignored them, washed his hands, probed the wound gently, and poured some clear fluid from one of his many bottles on to a piece of linen. He dabbed the wound with this and it stung so much that Ezio almost sprang from his chair, his face screwed up with the pain. Then, satisfied that the wound was clean, the doctor took a needle and threaded it with fine catgut.
‘Now,’ he said. ‘This really will hurt, a little.’
Once the stitches were in and the wound bandaged so that Ezio looked like a turbaned Turk, the doctor smiled encouragement. ‘That’ll be three
, for now. I’ll come to your palazzo in a few days and remove the stitches. That’ll be another three
to pay then. You’ll have a terrible headache, but it’ll pass. Just try to rest – if it’s in your nature! And don’t worry: the wound looks worse than it is, and there’s even a bonus: there shouldn’t be much of a scar, so you won’t be disappointing the ladies too greatly in future!’
Once they were back in the street, Federico put his arm round his younger brother. He pulled out a flask and offered it to Ezio. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, noticing the expression on Ezio’s face. ‘It’s our father’s best grappa. Better than mother’s milk for a man in your condition.’
They both drank, feeling the fiery liquid warm them. ‘Quite a night,’ said Federico.