by Dave Freer
Ferrara, 1523 AD
This was going to be difficult. There really wasn’t any easy way into the walled city of Ferrara, or, now that it was too late, even a chance to get out of the queue to enter the Porta di Leoni. All that young Antimo Bartelozzi could do was be his normal assassin self – in other words, try to be invisible, or at least un-noticed. It didn’t help that eight out of every ten people heading through the crenellated city gate were female, and the gate-guards were searching and questioning all the males. Antimo could do a good job of passing for a woman. It did cause complications when the soldiers tried to get his skirts up and rape him, though.
That was too common a problem here in the fractured and squabbling city-states of Italy to make that disguise worthwhile, in general. Antimo’s task was to kill the ruler of this city, not to stab its soldiery. Of the various tasks his master had sent him to do, it looked likely to be the hardest yet. And he had a bare five weeks to return. Part of the time he had been given was lost to travel and preparation. He had four weeks and five days, now.
It was something of an unsavoury challenge, but he did what he had to do.
The queue nudged forward, and then again. Antimo arrived at the guards. “Good day, masters,” he said servilely. The sergeant in the iron-bound leather cap looked at him disinterestedly. Didn’t bother to greet him. That was good. Then the sergeant said, jerking a thumb at the watch-room, “Bring him in and search him.”
That wasn’t good. And it was more than the man with the donkey carrying wicker panniers just ahead had got.
“I haven’t done anything wrong,” said Antimo in a slightly fearful whine as he walked into the small stone-walled room. The fear in his voice was not entirely false, either.
“Yet,” said the soldier. “Off with the pack. Let’s see what you’ve got in it.”
Antimo shed the rough hemp bag with its simple rawhide drawstring and straps onto the table, looking scared. That too wasn’t hard.
There was open suspicion in the soldier’s face by now. He cut the drawstring, not bothering to untie it. Poured out the contents. A spare shirt, patched and frayed, considerably worse for wear than the one he wore, a small roll of canvas, and a coarse-weave woollen blanket fell out of the bag, along with a leather bottle, a loaf of bread, and a small bag. The blanket-roll landed with a suggestive thump. Suspicious eyed, the sergeant unrolled it with a jerk.
“Careful!” said Antimo, reaching forward.
“Back off… oh.”
It was no hidden weapon or contraband.
“Sorry sir. My krumhorn is all I have to earn my bread,” said Antimo, looking at the object. As musical instruments went, it was plainly old and well-used.
“Ah,” said the guard. “A musician, are you?”
Antimo nodded eagerly, smiling as if vastly relieved that this deadly secret had been revealed. “Yes. I play the lute and the sackbut too. But we were robbed just north of Cantia. Mario and Nico went home. Nico has a broken head, and Mario would not let him go alone. I… I came on, on my own, for the Palio. I have never been to such a big place. We played in the villages around our home.”
The soldier snorted. But his suspicions had been eased. “Ferrara is safer than most. Our Duke keeps it well patrolled, especially over the Palio. There are still thieves and cut-throats about, of course, but it’s a good town. You wouldn’t last a day in Venice or Milan. And where is your home?”
“Milcantone, Sir.” That was still, technically, within the demesne of Duke Enrico Dell’este. A little close to the flexible border, but far off enough not to make it likely that the guard would know anyone there. Far enough to off to explain a slight difference in accent, Antimo hoped. He was a natural mimic, give him three days here, and he should pass for a local.
“Huh. Who is your podesta?”
Antimo knew the answer to that, and gave it. He knew the local priest, and the names of several prominent land-owners too. After his first mission, which had nearly ended in his imprisonment, he had learned the value of good preparation.
“It’s an unusual instrument,” said the guard, not quite ready to let him go.
“My father taught me how to play it. He was a soldier, before he was injured,” said Anitmo proudly. There was a value in truth, as well getting some sympathy from the guard. His father had been a Swiss mercenary, and had taught him a thing or two. Not the bass krumhorn in the blanket-roll, but about the knife.
The guard didn’t ask why Antimo had not followed his father’s path. His clothes and stature told that story. He was small, and plainly, whoever his mother had been, she’d been a mere peasant, by the boy’s dress. That was the wrong conclusion too, but Antimo wasn’t going to point it out. Instead, once his meagre pouch with its scanty handful of coppers had been inspected, and his short little knife, essential for eating and not much use for cutting anything more than bread, had been sneered at, he packed up his bag as directed. He muttered a bit about the cut thong, and got a cuff around the ear for his temerity, behaving just as a one-step-above-a-peasant musician would. He had to give his name and profession to the bored clerk, who scratched them down and shooed him away, as he stopped to peer at the writing as if he never seen it done before.
Expected, normal behavior: It let him walk off into the city’s winding streets.
It would have been better to enter the city as part of a consort of krumhorn players, of more obvious success and ability, and gone to play in the homes of the nobility and gentry. That would have given Antimo easier access to his target. It would also have required that he could play the instrument reasonably well, and had a compliant musicians consort. Neither held true. He could play, possibly well enough to be the weakest member of the group of village players. He could have shown the guard that much skill. But the misericorde secreted inside it would have made it sound very strange, so it was just as well it hadn’t come to that. And trusting others was not something Antimo wanted to have to do again.
After all: That was how he’d ended up having to do what he did now. He walked on, making sure he was out of sight of the gatehouse before he stopped to mop his brow, and permit himself a brief half-smile. He did enjoy fooling people, it was true. He did know he was being followed, but that too was to be expected. Spies and intrigue were normal to the city states. It helped to keep the level of robbery and murder down, employing some of the rogues for the work. Most of them weren’t very good at it. They’d follow any new-comer for a while to see if he behaved normally, and then give up. There weren’t that many strangers in Ferrara, but around the horse races, the Palio di Ferrara, there were more than usual. The most likely spies and assassins would be posing as more wealthy travellers, and they’d get more attention. The poor were too limited in access to be feared, the fools thought.
It was true, of course, that he’d have had more flexibility masquerading as one of those wealthy ones, but he also would have had more and better watchers. So he went about the normal business of a poor musician – buying a hot ciupéta from the baker, and parting with a copper to dip it into the simmering pot of tripe outside the butchers shop, which also had a rumor of salume cooked in it. He found a place to sit and eat, and then polished his krumhorn, which gave him a chance to slip the long slim knife out of it, and into his boot, before playing for coins from passers-by, and being chased off by the well-fed butcher’s boy. “Go make your buzzing noise elsewhere, you little rat.”
The little rat went to look for a little rat-hole. He found one in a scruffy tavern, popular with coal-men. He played there, and though he was too poor to share a bed, as the others did, he did find shelter in the stable. For the next week he was the model of a moderately unsuccessful musician, as the town filled up for the Palio with its parades, flag-squads, horse and donkey racers, and even women’s races. The streets were thick with jugglers, magicians -- some possibly real, some obviously frauds — sellers of pastries, other better musicians, sellers of magic charms and saint’s relics, and a few pickpockets, and Antimo quietly fitted in. As much as it annoyed Antimo, he even let a man slit his pouch. He was tempted to slit his throat in exchange. But he wasn’t here for the copper coins. And he had some spare money, hidden.
Duke Enrico Dell’este, already known for his strategy and cunning, was feeling neither clever nor in control of the strategic factors of his life. The spymaster looked nervously at the mailed duke, who thumped his fist into his palm. The huge, grizzled Alpine mastiff lying at the door picked it head up at the sound. “Lorendana and now this. Are you sure there are no more leads?”
“Just that he came from Breno. On the orders of Marquis Michael Benzoni, Your Grace.”
“Cousins betray me, daughters desert me!” The duke sighed. “No description, no method, or what he plans?”
“He is apparently quite young, and very plain. An ordinary looking man. It was said that his other three victims died by the knife, Your Grace. He is supposed to be very good at his work. He kills where many others have failed. His skill seems magical. That is why I asked about magical protection.”
The duke paced. “What magic we have is tied to iron. Such protections as I can invoke, have been, for years. Now… I am tempted to let him succeed,” he said wearily.
“We need you, Your Grace,” said the man.
That was not said out of courtly manners, because the spymaster, Marco Albruzzo had none. The worst of it was that the duke knew it to be true. Ferrara had been in a desperate situation, surrounded by bigger, hungry states, with little land, and no security, when Duke Niccolo -- the man who could have been his father -- had died. Duke Enrico had never known his mother. She’d been executed shortly after his birth. The other man, who could possibly have been his father, Ugo, or his older step-brother, had been executed seven months earlier. Only pregnancy had saved his mother from the headsman until his birth. She had been nineteen, and married to Duke Niccolo for five childless years.
It had colored the way that Enrico treated his own late wife’s children, and surviving wayward daughter, and had shaped him, Enrico knew. His father certainly had not loved him for the scandal of doubt that surrounded his birth, and that had driven Enrico to the guidance of the man who had loved him and shaped him, just as he had worked iron’s shape to his will. The young Enrico was introduced to the master swordsmith Eldo Villacastin when he was just seven. The lords of Ferrara had ancient ties to the iron-workers, and the dukes were expected to pay some lip service to working in iron themselves. When his tutor took him to the forge, Master Eldo set him to working the bellows for a few minutes to amuse him. Enrico had stayed, because even then he’d learned both to spot the danger signs in his father, and to be as cunning as a little fox, hunted by something far bigger and nastier. He did not have to go to the swordsmith, every day. But it was a place that was safe from his father’s drunken rages, and where he had found a family of a sort, and learned… everything that was important. He’d never be a swordsmith like the master, or the master’s sons. But they and theirs, and the city… they needed him. They also needed the fox to enable them to survive the bigger predators who would sack or destroy their home city. Even the spymaster was one of the smiths. The journeymen travelled, and that had been the start of his spy network, which had helped him survive, and had helped him win against the odds.
The network had grown since then, as Enrico had fought to recapture the lands his father and grandfather lost. He’d learned to be as cunning as a fox, because he had neither the troops nor money to win by other means.
Yes. They needed him. And he needed his strong-headed, wild daughter. He missed her fiercely, although they had, neither of them, been any good at saying so. Right now there was not much he could do about Lorendana or her Montagnard… meddling, except to pray that she did not get killed. She meddled, he knew, partly to infuriate him.
“After the Palio… I want the city cleared of those that we do not have absolute certainty of. The man may have a good cover story, but if we get rid of some of the dross, we can see the color of the metal.”
The spymaster nodded. “There’s a fair amount of dross. Mind you, there are enough people we can’t touch, Your Grace.”
“The gentry will be my problem. But I can winnow down my contact with those.”
“We have a list from the gates,” said the spymaster. “The day after the Palio finishes, we’ll sweep the streets of them.”
“I expect he will try before then,” said Duke Enrico. “But we can do nothing before, but watch. The Palio is too popular to stop.”
“Wear armor, Your Grace.” Marco jerked a thumb at Molto, the snoring mastiff across the doorway. He and the dog had a very wary relationship. “Keep the dog with you. And change your pattern of living.”
“I need to beat iron, and to scratch sometimes,” said the duke, slightly plaintive.
The spymaster had summonsed a smile. “You’d be safe enough in the forge to do both, I reckon, Your Grace.”
Antimo readied himself, storing food, and drink in the tiny hidey-hole he had established for it. It was too small to hold a man, between the boards, but enough for his stock. A night journey, when he was sure he was unobserved and half the town was drunk, had brought him the rope that he would use to leave over the city wall. Other than that, he already had all he would need, food, drink, a pot to relieve himself, and patience. A book, or even several would have been a luxury, but reading was something he had learned to accept could not be a part of his role. He would pass the time, as he had before, drawing, numbering and counting things.
On the final day of the Palio, when the cobbled streets were loud with martial music, drum and sackbut, and the competitions between the contrade were at their noisy height, Antimo slipped into the rafters of the tavern stable. That building was only separated by a few bricks from the coal-yard next door, and its coal-wains, waiting to be filled. Antimo went from being a musician… to a wastrel sleeping on a pile of coal, with a shovel and an empty jar of cheap wine, some of which he poured onto himself, before rolling in the coal dust. The krumhorn he dropped down the tavern well. It could only make the water better.
They would search hard for a musician, trying to hide. Not for a drunk lying openly in the coal-yard. No-one would come to load coal until the city got back to work, and if anyone came… he’d load coal. They’d look for a skulking rogue, hiding, behaving suspiciously. Their eyes drifted unseeing over folk doing what they thought they were supposed to be doing. Yes, they might not recognize him, but it wasn’t a job people lasted long at.
Antimo heard the guards searching and yelling, by late the next afternoon. One of the town’s soldiery even looked in the gate of the coal-yard at him. Coal was uncomfortable, but it was May and the blanket under him helped. Eventually, someone opened the gate to the coal-yard and two soldiers came and looked in the shed. He opened his eyes and looked blearily at them. “When is the Palio race? I’ve got a silver grosh bet on Bario…”
The guards laughed. “Go back to sleep. You’ve lost your money,” said the taller guard.
“Have you seen -- ” started the other.
The taller fellow interrupted him with a snort. “Look at him. He hasn’t seen anything for two days, I reckon.”
They left, and Antimo waited some more. He was good at waiting.
“He gave his name as Phillipo, and claimed to have come from Milcantone,” said Ferrara’s spymaster, Marco Albruzzo. “I questioned the guard myself. All he remembers about the fellow was the krumhorn. All else he could tell us was that he was quite young and poor and ordinary. He was followed and seen playing it, and he was cadging money and sleeping in the stable at the taverna Molcando,” said the spymaster. “The stable-boy was given a few coppers to ignore him. He’s not there now, though. No one saw him leave. No one has seen him since last night, when he was whining about his pouch being slit, showing them the cut. The krumhorn is all most people remember.”
The duke drew breath in a hiss across teeth. Nodded. “He is the one we were looking for. I can smell it in the neat piece of distraction he used. Something unusual to draw the attention, so they didn’t notice him, but it. He is a skilled operator,” said the duke.
“So where is he now, Your Grace?” asked Marco.
“Sleeping comfortably in some disaffected minor noble’s house, I would guess,” said Enrico. “We will need a little careful questioning of some servants, and to keep some under observation. I will compile a list.”
In answer his spymaster handed him one. The duke raised an eyebrow, read it, and added two names to it. “If you find signs, we’ll take steps.” They both knew what that would mean.
The spymaster nodded. “It could be a false trail, Your Grace. The poor fellow could be dead in a well, and be nothing more than a krumhorn player who got robbed.”
“If people fall sick around the tavern, I suppose we’ll have the well drained and send someone down,” said the Duke. “But I don’t think so. That krumhorn…”
“Maybe the horses will fall sick. The people around there don’t drink well-water.”
A week passed. The home of a newly wealthy merchant was raided, but all that yielded was a man skilled in adulterating silver coinage. Enrico let time dull the watchfulness. He knew that could be what the assassin intended. It could however be that -- not for the first time -- information received was not accurate. He had other, pressing matters to concentrate on.
Antimo waited two weeks. It was not much, against the life of a man. The marquis had given him five weeks, which Antimo had considered too little time. As usual, the waiting gave him too much time for thought. It was time spent -- except in the small hours when he would exit the little door just under the eaves of the tavern to swing onto the roof and stretch his legs -- quietly, not moving much, waiting and sleeping. The little attic had, of course, been searched when they’d originally looked for him, and showed no sign that anyone had used its cramped junk-space for years. It was too much trouble to get to for the owners to bother with. But that was then. Antimo had added some straw from the stable, to make himself comfortable, and whiled the time away drawing maps and even a portrait or two in charcoal on the floor. He drew by the light of a shifted tile that kept it from being too hot to live so close under the roof. By opening the eave-door a crack, he was also able to keep the duke’s tower in sight, and watch the smoke from the foundry. Smoke revealed a great deal to him, once he had realized that it was not all the same. The heat and the fuel used made it come out differently from the chimneys. The swordsmiths here had their tricks or their magic, Antimo had been informed. And one of them involved using something in their furnaces that did not produce much smoke at all – and that was when the duke was there.
The foundry bought coal. Antimo had established that fact before he even came to Ferrara. This was a place that had neither iron nor coal of its own and yet was one of the centers of steel-craft in Northern Italy, renowned for the craftsmanship of its smiths. Especially its swordsmiths, who held a ducal charter, and plied their trade just across the moat from Duke Enrico’s Lion tower. It was unusual, and had been enough to start Antimo thinking about how to kill the duke, when the marquis had told him that that would be his target.
The fact that the duke went there every day that he was in the city, was enough to finalize Antimo’s plan.
Swordsmiths needed iron, and they always needed coal delivered. And the coal-seller’s wain needed a man with a shovel. The late afternoon often saw that man very drunk, especially as his supply of cheap wine mysteriously increased. Antimo had actually been to the foundry twice before the chance arose to get close to the duke.
The forge-masters allowed the duke the space to be alone with the hot iron. To strip off to his shirt-sleeves and allow the muscles on that solid, stocky body to be used. To lose himself in the rhythms of working iron. It was respect. It was also very dangerous.
Antimo moved like a ghost. It was one of his real skills, unlike playing the krumhorn, he knew. He could pass, silent and unseen, or at least un-noticed. The lounging guards had assumed he was just there to shovel coal into the furnace, so allowed the coal-blackened man and his barrow to pass.
The duke was bent over his work at the anvil. The furnace was bright and the duke had two lanterns there, each with shutters and mirrors to help the light shine precisely where it was wanted, to help him see work clearly. Outside the dusk was already fading into night, and deep shadows hung around the feet of the silhouetted iron-worker, and the rhythmic hammer-blows ceased as he leaned forward, and Antimo moved in for the kill.
Fast, silent and deadly…
To be obstructed by the huge dog that stood up from the shadows behind his master.
The dog was almost as big as Antimo, but the assassin was not afraid of that. The dog had growled no warning, nor did it lunge towards him.
Dogs never did, to Antimo. They liked him, nuzzled him, came to him, even the savage ones. But the mastiff was in his way… and he’d seen his father’s dog pine and die. It made him pause for just that second before killing the dog’s master…
But the task had to be done.
He could have killed the dog, but instead, stepped left, delaying the deadly stroke by a second or two.
The moment had been enough, and something must have warned his target.
And now the target held a hammer in his hand.
Antimo felt it hit him, as he tried to step past the dog.
It hit him just like a hammer thrown by smith-hard muscles would, but not squarely, merely glancing off his temple.
Antimo did not know that.
The guards stood alert and watchful now, a spear-point at the throat of the felled assassin. Lorendana’s dog, however stood over the man. Enrico Dell’este looked at the animal in puzzlement. “It’s more like Moro is guarding him than guarding me. “
“He at least gave you warning, Your Grace,” said the sergeant-of-the-guard.
“The reflection in the blade I was working on did that, Luco,” said the Duke shaking his head. “I think it was the magic in the iron working for me. The dog just got in his way, I think. Still, it gave me a second or two to act. I would have been spitted otherwise. He was very quiet and very fast.”
“What do we do with him, Your Grace?” asked the guard, looking at the unconscious man. He was breathing… for now, bloody as a head-wound can make a man. It was hard to tell how bad the wound was, merely by the blood. “Kill him or save him for the headsman’s axe?”
“Take him to the cells. If he lives through that blow, he may tell us about who sent him, and just how he got so close,” said Enrico, grimly. “Then… I’ll see. In the meanwhile I want Marco Albruzzo sent to me. We will follow up as much as we can, just in case he does die before talking. We will start with a check on the coal-merchants.”
When Antimo next remembered anything, he was lying down, under a blanket, on a bed in a dim room. He blinked his eyes, looking at the stone walls, and the large man lounging in the chair against the wall. “Ah. The canary is awake,” said the man in a gravelly voice. “How many fingers am I holding up, signor?”
“Three,” said Antimo, before he realized he that he should perhaps have said five or two. But he felt too weak to think, let alone come up with quick lies, just then. Still, from under half-lidded eyes he took in the details of the place, instinctively. It could only be a dungeon room that he was in. The door was heavy, and had a tiny barred grille near the top. The only light came from a tiny slit window, high on the wall.
“Good,” said the man, standing up. “The physician said you’d either get it right the next time you came to, or your wits would be permanently addled.” Antimo closed his eyes. It was still too much to think properly. He heard the door close.
A little later, a creak alerted him, made him open his eyes again, as the door to the dungeon room opened, to admit none other than the man Antimo had sought to kill. “My people tell me you are awake,” said Duke Enrico Dell’este.
The duke was followed by same huge dog that had thwarted the assassin’s killing knife-stroke. Antimo wondered if the duke realized the animal was no defense against him, but had saved his master simply because the assassin could not bring himself to kill the dog first. The dog walked closer, and sniffed at him, curiously. “Yes, Duke Enrico,” said Antimo. He knew what he had coming to him: torture, questioning and then death. That was the captured assassin’s lot. He weighed his chances of escape through the open door, or his chances of success in killing the Duke. Neither were good. The best would be to play for time. “I am conscious, Your Grace. Forgive me for not getting up to show my respects, but I am very weak.”
“You are fortunate to be alive, Signor Bartelozzi,” said the Duke, with just faintest of smiles.
The duke intended to discomfort him, to frighten him. And he did. How did the Duke of Ferrara know his name? “What am I doing here?” asked Antimo. There was not much chance that a pretence of amnesia would fool anyone, but he might win some more time.
“At the moment, recovering from being knocked senseless by a glancing blow from my set-hammer,” said the Duke. “I was correct it seems. It appears my daughter’s dog does like you. How odd.”
Antimo realized that, without thinking, he’d been gently scratching the spot behind the dog’s ear. He stopped, and the big mastiff nudged his hand again with its large nose. “Dogs like me, Your Grace.”
“That must be useful in your trade,” it was neutrally said, with no hint of animosity.
Antimo began to wonder what this led to. Was this man hinting that instead of torture and death… he might be spared? Not "must have been" useful. Maybe he needed an assassin himself. All the Italian lords used them, some, like Venice, more than others. It would take a very cool and calculating man to employ someone who had barely failed to kill himself for such work. But it was an opening. Except of course… “Your dog caused me to fail this time, Your Grace. I like him too.”
“So he did,” said the Duke. “Old Molto is actually my daughter’s dog, and she was the one that insisted he be allowed everywhere with her. He has merely transferred that habit to me, in her absence.”
Antimo did not say that if he had known that, the duke would have been dead, or that he knew, now, that the duke was wrong, and the dog knew its master and loved him. He was silent. So the duke continued.
“By the way, you are quite a skilled artist. My men found your hiding place, and I have been to see it. Had you chosen another profession, you could have had great success as a cartographer. You could have drawn my tower larger though. It is the most important building in the city. Not the basilica.”
Anitmo had the feeling he was being played – not quite as a cat might with a mouse, but as a professional player of dice did with a green novice he planned to fleece. And while tact might have suggested he admit that he got it wrong, he had a feeling that too could be a trap of some kind. “I counted the paces, Your Grace. Artists need to get the scale right.”
That was definitely a slight, tigerish smile on the duke’s face. “Artists are not so precise, Bartelozzi. They flatter. But you were apprenticed as a scribe, not an artist... or an assassin.”
There was no point in denying it. Antimo had no idea what the duke knew, or quite where he’d got the information from. It was fishing he was sure… well, almost sure. “I suppose scribes are required to be more precise. We only copy, much of the time, Your Grace.”
“Still, it is an unusual profession for a young man who has developed such a propensity for knives and their use. But I gather you had that from your father.”
He was definitely being played, and skillfully at that. And perhaps there was an element of cat-and-mouse toying there. “Yes, Your Grace. I was something of a disappointment to him.”
“One often is. But rarely to one’s mother, it would seem. That was something I never got to experience.”
Antimo, like most of Northern Italy, knew the story of Enrico’s parentage. It fitted too, with Marquis Benzoni’s claim on the city. He was surprised to hear the duke speak of it though. But there was no further avoiding of his deeper fear: “Your Grace. How long have I been insensible?”
“Oh, you have been awake before. But your wits were begging the first twice, and not much better the last time,” said the duke. “But it has been something over two weeks, Signor Bartelozzi.”
Antimo knew his face betrayed him. He swallowed. And then said, “So long.” He swallowed again. There was nothing he could do then. He had his life to play for, and that was all. The five weeks had passed. There was no point in going back, except to mourn.
“Yes,” said the duke, “but you’ve come and gone from us. I believe you once killed three soldiers in Breno before the priest hit you over the head.”
Was there anything this man did not know? Had he told them himself? People did such things when their wits were wandering. “They had killed my master, and they followed my mother into the Chapel of St. Philip to rape her and kill me,” said Antimo, as calmly as he could. “We thought to find sanctuary in the church. My mother was already injured. It was a mistake to trust the priest.”
“I had wondered just what had happened to your master,” said the Duke. “He was a spy, you know.”
“It’s a lie. He was a good, kindly old man. They thought he was magician because he could write,” said Antimo, surprised that he could still be angry about it, even now. “The marquis' mercenaries tortured him. Called him a Jew and tortured him to find his treasure.” Antimo had killed four of them too. They had not seen him coming.
“Oddly, they were right, but I am sure, it was merely by accident,” said the duke, calmly. “I should know that he was a spy. He was one of mine. I paid him, read his reports. I believe he was Jew too, but had somewhat lapsed in the observance of his beliefs. Neither of these things mean that he was not a good man. He even suggested that you might have potential, when you were older.”
Antimo was silenced. He just stared.
“It happens to spies, boy. And to assassins,” said Duke Enrico Dell’ Este. “You called out to him a number of times while your wits were wandering. One of my agents was watching you, in case you said something useful. He was… surprised.”
So was Antimo, although, thinking about it, he should not have been. The old scribe he’d been apprenticed to after his father’s death had had his round of villages and small towns, travelling far, by the standards of the Italian peasantry. Antimo had loved the travel, the seeing new places. The scribe could write, number, and was privy to all sorts of contracts and agreements. He would not have been sitting in at the councils of the rich and powerful – they had scribes of their own, or could read and write themselves, or used their priests. But even in his role as a copyist, Antimo had learned there were few big secrets well-hidden in the country. And one could often join the disparate facts. “I killed the men who had tortured him, Your Grace. Even if he had told them anything… they could not have passed it on. He died bravely.” Antimo did not say, "in my arms, and I kissed the old man’s face and closed his eyes, before I ran to find my mother to protect her. And if I had not stayed with him… I might have been in time for her." But not for the first time, he thought it.
“I had assumed he’d killed those who attacked him,” said the Duke. “I did get informed, after the sack of Breno, that he was dead, and had been found with the bodies. So: it was seven, not three. Still, it surprises me that my cousin, Marquis Benzoni, was that astute that he saw the value in you, Antimo Bartelozzi.”
“My mother pleaded for my life, Your Grace. She was a merchant’s daughter before she ran off with my father. She… bargains.” Antimo could not bring himself to say "bargained." She would be dead by now. He could only hope that it had been quick. That had been his bargain. That had been the bastard testa di cazzo Marquis’s hold over him and the price. Her safety. Her life, in exchange for the lives of the targets. She’d given so much for Antimo, and he knew it. If he ever got free… and he had to admit there seemed a small chance of it now, even with this strange nobleman. Duke Enrico was odd, a noble who worked iron as a commoner might. Perhaps that was why he seemed so calm and knew far too much. Perhaps he would understand and allow Antimo Bartelozzi to call on the marquis with deadly intent. It was a faint hope, small fuel for that spark of vengeance.
“Aha,” said the duke, nodding. “I like things explained. If you understand how they work… you can predict, sometimes, what will happen in future, and how prevent it. For example, I gathered from your ramblings when you were not with your wits that you’d noticed when we use coal that has been burned without air, much as one does for charcoal burning, merely by the smoke and realized that it meant I might be working there. That is a secret that my forge-masters need to hide better, and I would have you be silent about. It is not something we need our enemies or competitors discovering. You’re observant, and I like explanations. They are useful in war, and in statecraft. I had wondered if I had missed something in my cousin. I am glad to have that, too, explained.” He tilted his head slightly. “It may interest you to know that Marquis Michael Benzoni, who I believe stood second in the line of the heritors to my demesne, had a tragic accident recently. He fell off a balcony, poor man,” said Enrico Dell’este, his expression and tone in sharp contrast to his words. “I think he was rather surprised to see me, at that time of night, and took a careless step backwards. There was a sharp spiked iron-work fence below the balcony. Ferrara wrought-iron work. It did seem... appropriate.”
“My mother…” blurted Antimo.
Now the duke smiled, properly. “I quite understand how she talked that fool into it. Your mother is very eloquent in your defense and in pleading for you too. She values you very highly, young man. I know a great deal about your intelligence, ability and courage. And about your upbringing. In the light of what I have seen, some of it may even be true.”
“You… you were in time to stop him from killing her? Your Grace, she had nothing to do with all of this. She was just a hostage. Punish me, not her.”
“I am aware of that, Antimo Bartelozzi. That is why I brought her back here with me. She’s been fussing over you, and defending you, vocally and often. It was pure chance that Leopoldo was watching you when you came to your senses, and not your mother. She has spent many hours with you. She is asleep now, but I will send her down later.” The duke gave him the benefit of a twisted smile. “It will stop her worry and her bargaining, which was not needed. Both you and she do not understand that it is not a sword, a knife or a harquebus that is dangerous. It is the man using it and his purpose that make it deadly. You were Benzoni’s blade, and he is dead now.” Leaning down Duke Enrico took the misericorde out of his boot, and handed it, hilt first to Antimo.
Antimo nearly dropped it. “Your Grace… what do you mean by this?” he asked warily, holding the long thin-bladed knife, as if it were possibly a trap, or about to magically transform into a snake. “And… my my mother, what do you plan to do with her?”
The duke shrugged. “Nothing. I do not make war on women. I would scorn to use such a lever.” Antimo could see a slight straightening of the iron-working duke’s spine as he said this, with a twist of his lips. “Actually, some money was owing to your old master. I am perpetually short of funds, but as it happens there is a silversmith’s house and shop which, owing to its previous owner’s attempt to debase my coin, is in my gift. I believe she was your master’s leman, her bargain to get him to take you as an apprentice. He died in my service, and I would think that some recompense for it. What do you think?”
Antimo thought the man was possibly mad, but did not say so, in case he changed his mind. Instead he took a deep breath and asked the question directly. “Do you mean me to be your assassin, Your Grace?” If that was what it took, he could do it, as little as he wanted to.
Duke Enrico shook his head. “I have very little use for assassins. If that is your chosen trade, try Venice or Milan. I cannot do that better than they do, and rather than try to beat them at their own game I work in my own way. For that I do, however, value loyalty, and the ability to make maps that are correct and to scale. It appears to me that you can be very loyal, and I was impressed by the map you had drawn. You paid fine attention to details other miss. You understand how to mislead and go to hostile places. And you can write and think. Those could all be useful to me.
Antimo struggled out of the bed, using, without thinking, the big mastiff as a leaning post. The dog did not appear to mind. Antimo knelt in front of the Duke. “Your Grace… I would be your man. If you can trust me. I tried to kill you.”
“Put the knife away before you fall over onto it,” said the Duke, helping him up. “I do not wish to explain that to your mother. Lie down, before you fall down. The dog trusts you, and he is a better judge than most. Oddly, it stopped me from killing you in the heat of the moment. He stood over you, almost as if he was guarding you, not me. I took it as a sign of sorts. Now, I must go. I have work to do, reports from my spies to read. A summer campaign to plan. I’ll send your mother with some food and drink. When you are stronger, my people will bring you to me.”
Antimo’s mind was in a turmoil. And getting up had made him very giddy. But he knew that sparing the dog had been its own reward, many times over. “The knife… they will not like me having that in the dungeon.”
“Dungeon?” asked the Duke, pausing.
“Er. This place… where murderers and assassins are kept.”
The Duke gave a crack of laughter. “My dungeons are reported to be cleaner and drier than some others. But this is merely a room in the tower di Leone. I wonder if you will make a good spy after all. I had believed you have an eye for detail, Antimo Bartelozzi. Few dungeons have a bar on the inside of the door.”
Copyright © 2013 by Dave Freer
Dave Freer is the author or coauthor of a host of books, novellas and short stories for Baen and beyond. His latest is high fantasy Dog and Dragon. Dave is also the coauthor of books in several series with Eric Flint and Mercedes Lackey, including the Heirs of Alexandria series, with newest entry, Burdens of the Dead. This story is part of the Heirs of Alexandria universe.