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Authors: Cecelia Holland

City of God

BOOK: City of God
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City of God

A Novel of the Borgias

Cecelia Holland


Night had come. Nicholas Dawson, waiting on the stony shore of the Tiber, began to shiver in the cold. He tucked his hands into the folds of his coat and swayed a little from one foot to the other, and cast a look around him, from the river to the swampy meadow behind him, stinking of rot.

Usually he avoided this part of Rome even during the day, but the messenger had said, “Come alone.” The messenger had also spoken a certain name to him. But for that name he would never have come here at night, by himself.

He had been waiting nearly an hour. The midnight bells would toil soon. He tried to control the shivering of his body. He began to think that he might leave—call it a hoax and leave. At that thought he stirred again, rocking on his feet set close together on the river stones. The Tiber rushed along in the dark; where its waters lapped on the shore a streak of garbage was cast up as the river passed. Ahead of him, the black smelly water broke white against the piers of an ancient bridge, broken with years, so that only two piers and one arch remained.

Near the bridge, in the tangled thickets of the swamp, something moved.

Nicholas Dawson stopped rocking on his feet. His eyes strained to pick out the shapes coming at him through the darkness. Stones clicked on the path. Nicholas stepped sideways, away from the water, toward the protecting shadows of the marshes, and he half-turned, ready to run away, but with his head twisted toward the men approaching him.

He wished he had brought a sword, or at least his walking stick. He had no knowledge of fighting; yet he longed for something to put between himself and strangers.

There were two of them, two men coming single-file toward him along the edge of the water. Perhaps they were honest. Perhaps, in a few moments, Nicholas would know what all Italy longed to know of Valentino.

Thinking of Valentino made him eager. He called out to the two men coming near him: “Wait there! Come no closer. Who are you?”

They stopped in their file. The leader put his hand out to the side, holding the other man behind him. The leader was broad-shouldered and wore a great flopping hat. The other was taller and thin. Nicholas could see nothing of their faces.

“Who are you?” one called.

“I had a message,” Nicholas said.

He wound his fingers in his coat. The back of his mouth was dry.

“You want to know where Cesare Borgia marches, and whom he will attack,” said the man in the hat. “For which you will pay fifty crowns.”

“Agreed,” Nicholas said.

The stones crunched. The two men were moving toward him again. They separated, coming at him from either side, and his hackles rose. A trap. He wheeled, his shoes slipping on the mossy ground, but there was nowhere to run. On either side the strangers closed in on him.

“The money,” said the man in the hat.

“I did not bring it,” Nicholas said. “I have nothing with me.”

The tall man swore a loutish country oath. He gripped Nicholas by the sleeve and pushed him to the bank—almost into the shallow sewage-ridden water. The other man passed his hands hard over Nicholas's coat, searching for his purse.

“I have no money with me,” Nicholas said.

“Kill him,” the tall man said.

They pressed close to him; he clenched his teeth, the river stench in his nostrils like an omen.

“Don't kill me. I will gladly give you the fifty crowns not to kill me.”

The tall man moved abruptly in the dark. Nicholas flinched from the blow he expected, and nearly lost his balance. He flailed with his hands at the air. The man with the hat caught him by the arm and held him still, painfully gripped in a hand like a vise.

“You have no money,” the tall man said. He had not moved to hit Nicholas, but to draw a knife.

Across the river fifty voices suddenly rose in a Lenten chant of penance. Nicholas touched his tongue to his lips. “Not here,” he said. “I have a house—the other side of the Palatino. Near the Colosseo.” With an effort he kept his voice low. His words rushed forth but he held himself calm and tried to speak evenly. He said, “I will take you there. Give you the money.”

“Kill him,” the tall man said.

“If you kill me you will get nothing.”

The man in the hat reached between Nicholas and the tall man, pushing them apart. Nicholas saw the long thin blade of the knife as the tall man backed away. Across the river, the penitents were chanting a Miserere nobis. The man in the hat still held Nicholas by the arm in a hurtful twisting grip.

“If we go to this house of yours, you will set your men on us.”

“I have no men,” Nicholas said. “One of you could come inside to get the money. The other could wait outside.”

“I'll go in with you,” said the man in the hat.

Nicholas let out his breath, relieved. The wind touched his damp forehead. The man with the hat was between him and the knife.

The tall man said, “Yes, and I wonder how much of the money I'll ever see.”

“Let's go,” said the man with the hat.

“Who says I'm to fit in with this?” the tall man's voice rose. “You go in, and I wait forever in the street! Is that your scheme?”

Nicholas ran his gaze from one to the other of the thieves. Perhaps he would escape while they argued. He sidled away from the river. A flickering light caught his eye and he turned his head enough to see the light of a torch reflected in the water on the far side, and farther off the torch itself, leading the penitents' procession. The tight hold on his arm did not ease.

“I'll go with him,” the man with the hat said to the tall man. “You go back to the Fox and Grapes—I'll meet you there later.”

“Likely! Just likely!”

The knife flicked forward across the space between the two thieves. The man with the hat swung Nicholas around off balance and let him go. Nicholas fell to his knees on the stones. Scrambling up, he dashed away down the edge of the river. Behind him as he rushed away there was scuffling. Suddenly, like a voice in the sky, the first bell of midnight tolled. Nicholas slipped and slid on the damp shore, his lungs full of rotten river air.

As he clawed his way through the undergrowth along the marsh path, the man with the hat caught him.

“Not bad,” he said, and twisted Nicholas's arm up between his shoulders. “But the next time you run foot races, wear better shoes.”

Nicholas was out of breath. He glanced back the way he had run, looking for the other man.

“Don't worry about him,” said the man with the hat. “You owe me fifty crowns.”

“I'll pay,” Nicholas said. “Please let go of my arm.”

The other man laughed. He thrust Nicholas on ahead of him down the path. With one hand Nicholas fended off the weeds and thorny brambles that overhung the thread of the trail on either side. His aching arm was still curled up behind his back. From every direction came the rolling peal of the bells of Rome, measuring the time.

Nicholas fought his way through a screen of brush and vines onto the broad well-traveled road that led by the Palatino. To the right, beyond some stone pines, was a little church, where folk would be gathering for Mass. The hand left his arm.

He unkinked his arm and the blood tingled back through the limb, going warm up to his armpit. He shook his hand to bring the life back into his numb fingers.

“Take me straight to this house of yours,” the man in the hat said. “And no trouble.” He threw a long look back into the darkness of the river.

“Did you hurt him?” Nicholas said. The word “kill” stuck on his tongue.

The other man laughed again. He “was taller than Nicholas, heavy-set, or seemed so in his voluminous coat and hat. He said, “No—I just hit him. I don't cut people. There is too much risk in shedding blood. So move fast, he may wake up soon.”

Nicholas began to walk faster, and the big thief gave another round gust of laughter. They were passing the churchyard. There folk were entering the church, their heads already bowed and their hands together in prayer. Beyond the church the long horizon of the hill stretched off, broken by the flat heads of pine trees and a ruined wall.

“Do you know anything of Duke Valentino?” Nicholas asked.

“No more than anyone else,” the thief said. With both hands he adjusted the wide soft brim of his hat. There was a medal pinned to it, which he touched in passing, as if for luck. Nicholas watched these fastidious gestures, his interest piqued.

“Tell me what you know,” he said, “about Cesare Borgia.”

“Valentino has seized half the cities in the Romagna,” the thief said. “Forli, Imola, Cesena … Now he has marched his army toward Florence. He says he means no harm, but his soldiers are looting the villages as they come on them, and who can believe a Borgias word on his intentions?” The big man flicked his gaze at Nicholas. “You are the Florentine ambassador.”

“Only the secretary,” Nicholas said.

“We sent the note to the ambassador.”

“The most excellent and illustrious Ercole Bruni does not meet folk late at night by the river.” Nicholas touched the big man's arm, directing him to the left, through the dense evergreen trees. He drew his hand back. His fingertips grazed the cheap velvet sleeve of the thief's coat. “Would you have threatened an ambassador to the Court of the Pope? Risky.”

“The dark cuts the risk,” the thief said. “I need money.”

Ahead the trees gave way to the wide meadows and pastures around the Colosseo. The cold wind rushed at them. Sheep grazed across the open ground, their bells tinkling. Nicholas led the thief past the terraces and broken columns that marked the edge of the Forum, where the fires of the lime kilns still burned. The two men went on around past the Colosseo itself, looming up under its coats of shrubs and climbing vines. None of the great of Rome claimed it, perhaps because it was known to be haunted. The Pierleone had once used it for a fortress, but now the inside was abandoned to the owls and cats and necromancers. Wretched hovels clung to the outside wall. Long poles set in chinks in the marble braced their walls of junk. The place looked evil to Nicholas, who knew what pastimes the ancients had engaged in there.

Halfway around it the watch hailed them.

“Messer Dawson,” said the leader of the watch, recognizing him. On his shoulder he carried his pike; one of his followers bore the lantern on its long pole.

“Yes,” Nicholas said. “My companion and I are going to my home. Is the place quiet?”

“Nothing stirring,” the watchman said, squinting at the big thief, whose hat protected his face from the light of the lantern. “Who are you? You aren't from this quarter.”

“Stefano Baglione,” the thief said calmly. “I live in the Trastevere.”

Nicholas kept his surprise from showing on his face. The Baglione family were lords of the city of Perugia. If this were a lie, it was a bold one. He glanced at the man beside him, his curiosity at full bloom. They were big men, the Baglioni. Perhaps it was true.

The watchman did not believe it; he gave a coarse hoot of derision. He smelled of wine. His eyes were red-veined. Probably he had just come from the wine shop in the next street. He said, “A Baglione? In the Trastevere?”

“Mind your tongue,” Nicholas said.

“Your pardon, Messer Dawson.”

The watchman nodded to him and walked off, his deputies trailing after him down the soggy stretch of meadow on the other side of the Colosseo. Nicholas started away into the pitch darkness the lantern left behind.

“Potlickers,” Stefano Baglione said furiously. “They think they own the street.”

“You should change your name.”

“It's my name!”

“Still, folk can only be skeptical.”

Stefano said no more. Nicholas took him down the lane that led to his house. They passed between two rows of little shops and across the paved square that opened up before the wine shop. Now on one side of the street was a pasture and on the other an abandoned warehouse. Puddles of filth stood in the gulley, and Nicholas watched where he put his feet. The warehouse's front wall came up flush with the edge of the street. At its corner a thick hedge of thorn began, eight feet high.

Midway along this hedge there was an iron gate. Nicholas took his key from his shirt and swung the gate open.

“You could have set the watch on me,” Stefano said.

“You could have let your friend knife me, back at the Tiber.”

Nicholas went through the gate into the wild tangle of the garden. The previous owner of the house had planted vines and fruit trees and pruned and watered, but Nicholas had no interest in the plantings and for twenty years had let them all do as they would. It was a big garden, choked with weeds and brambles and fallen branches. The house was buried in the middle of it. A walk of flagstones led to it through the high grass and wild roses. There was no step or porch; the door was set plainly into the blank wall of the house.

“I have a proposal for you,” Nicholas said. He tapped on the door.


The door opened and Nicholas's old servant looked out at them over a candle. He said nothing, only backed away to let them in. Age had humped his shoulders so that he could not stand upright and his head jutted forward like a dog's on his rigid neck. While he went off around the room lighting the candles on the walls, Nicholas shed his coat, and Stefano Baglione at last removed his hat.

Nicholas laid his coat over the chair by the door, the seat still dented from the old man's weight. Stefano had come past him a step, as he entered, and Nicholas could look at him without effrontery. The Baglioni were known for their good looks. He was interested to see if that, too, supported this man's claim to the name.

“What proposal?” Stefano asked, turning.

Caught staring, Nicholas lowered his eyes. “Come sit down.”

The old servant, Juan, had left the room. Nicholas turned to bolt the door. Stefano walked off around the room, looking at the paintings on the walls.

BOOK: City of God
6.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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