March 3, 1503
Stop, thief! Stop her! I've been robbed!"
Sanchia tore across the Mercato Vecchio, raced past the church and on down the street, jumping over an emaciated brown-and-white mongrel that devoured garbage scattered over the flagstones. She ducked under the outstretched arm of a leather-aproned cobbler, but his large hand caught the coarse woolen shawl covering her head. She jerked it from his grasp and kept running.
The merchant chasing her was plump, but still he was closing the distance between them, and Sanchia's heart slammed against her ribcage in a delirium of panic.
She was going to be caught.
Her hands would be chopped off at the wrists.
She would be thrown in the Stinche to be eaten by the rats.
Hot, agonizing pain shot through her left side. A stitch. She had to keep running.
What would Piero do? she wondered wildly. The others were older; they would find a way to survive. But Piero was only six. So many things could happen to so young a child. . . .
"Grab her, you fools. The slut stole my purse!"
Dio, Sanchia thought, he sounded close. How could he run so fast with all those rolls of fat hanging around his middle? She dodged around a wheelbarrow filled with fish, turned the corner of the Canto di Vacchereccia, then bolted down an alley yawning between a goldsmith's shop and an apothecary.
Darkness. Twilight lay over the city but full darkness reined in the alley.
Bright eyes glittered in the deep shadows at the base of the small buildings.
Rats. Dozens of them!
She stopped short, involuntarily recoiling.
The stones beneath the thin soles of her shoes were greasy from the garbage thrown out there by shopkeepers. She need have no fear of the rats, though, while they were feasting on the garbage.
The smell of rotting food in the closeness of the alley was overpowering. She swallowed, trying to fight down the nausea caused as much from terror as the stench.
"Which way did she go?"
The merchant's voice was wheezing and sounded a little farther away. Had she lost him when she darted into the alley? She shrank back into the densely clotted shadows of the goldsmith's shop, her palms pressed flat against the stone wall. Her breath was coming in harsh, painful gasps. Could he hear her? She tried to hold her breath, but there was no breath to hold. Cristo, what if he had heard her?
The cold, wet slime-covered wall chilled her back as it penetrated the wool of her gown. Her muscles felt leaden, the blood frozen in her veins. She was suddenly acutely conscious of the sharp, rough texture of the stone wall against her palms, but the sensation was almost pleasurable. Touch. What would she do without her hands? How could she live? How would all of them live?
"This way, you stupid blunderer."
She stiffened. The voice was not that of the fat merchant but one with which she was bitterly familiar. Her heart gave a wild leap of hope. The alley door of the apothecary shop had opened, and even in the darkness she recognized Caprino's slight, foppishly dressed silhouette.
She darted the few yards separating them and almost fell through the doorway into the shop. Her gaze flew to the front of the store, but the apprentice behind the small counter was scrupulously avoiding looking in her direction.
"He's safe," Caprino said. "He does work for me."
Poison, Sanchia thought with a shiver, or perhaps the strange white powders Caprino gave his whores.
Caprino slammed the door and held out his hand. "The purse."
She fumbled beneath her shawl for the soft leather pouch and then dropped it into his palm. She leaned back against the door, her knees shaking so badly she could barely stand upright.
"You were clumsy," Caprino said harshly. "I should have let that fat fool catch you. Next time I will."
She had to wait until she could speak without panting. "There won't be a next time. I'm never going to do it again."
"You will," Caprino said coolly. "You're frightened now, but it will pass. You'll never forget the fear and remember only the money that buys bread. You're not usually this clumsy. You may not come this close to being caught for the next ten lifts."
"I'll find another way." Sanchia's hands clenched at her sides. "There has to be another way."
"You didn't think so when you came to me." Caprino opened the door. "I have no more time for you. I have important business at Giulia's. Stay here for another few minutes before you go back to Giovanni's." The door swung shut behind him.
He hadn't given Sanchia her share of the purse, she realized dully. Trust Caprino to try to steal even the smallest purse, if given the opportunity. She would have to seek him out tomorrow and demand her portion. She had mouths to feed and Caprino was right about hunger being a sharp dagger that might goad even a saint into thieving.
But was hunger worth the risk of having her hands chopped off?
Fresh panic clutched at her as a chilling memory returned. Two months before she had seen a thief thrown out of Stinche Prison into the streets, his arms ending in bleeding stumps. Since then the fear of that punishment had lived with her during the day and invaded her dreams at night, She had tried and tried to think of another way to earn money to feed them, all the while fearing her frantic scheming would come to nought. There was no other way.
As there would be no other way the next time or the time after that. She would have to steal again just as Caprino had predicted. But he was wrong about the terror holding her in helpless thrall; it wasn't a thing of the moment.
She knew the fear would never go away again.
"Good evening, noble messeres, I have the honor to present to you my greetings. I am Guido Caprino." Caprino stood in the doorway and smiled ingratiatingly at the two men sitting at the polished table across the chamber. "The enchanting Madonna Giulia assured me I could be of some slight service to you."
He carefully kept a bland expression on his face as he appraised the two men. The older had to be Lorenzo Vasaro, he decided. His high cheekbones and deepset eyes matched the description Giulia had given him of the man--and besides, Caprino's own instincts responded to the shadowy aura of menace surrounding him. The man was lean, faultlessly elegant in his fashionably slashed black doublet, and clearly more dangerous than his companion. He gazed at the other man and felt a ripple of distaste. He was so male. Lionello Andreas might stand well over six feet, Caprino surmised, and he was too big-boned to lay claim to elegance no matter how richly he was garbed. Now, dressed only in gray hose and a loose white shirt, he appeared to be exactly what Caprino had expected: a barbarian warrior with more brawn than brains, he was not wearing a weapon, not even a dagger. Andreas might be the lord of Mandara, but Caprino would wager it was Vasaro who was the shrewd power behind the scenes there.
"Come in, Messer Caprino." Andreas picked up the silver goblet on the table in front of him and waved it at a cushioned chair beside the window before raising it to his lips. "Be seated."
The arrogant bastard hadn't bothered to stand up to greet him properly, Caprino thought as he smiled politely and crossed the room to take the seat indicated. No doubt Andreas did not think him worthy of respect. He would soon learn differently.
Lorenzo Vasaro rose and moved with silent grace to lean against the wall to the left of the window. He folded his arms across his chest and gazed blandly at Caprino.
A good move. Caprino's respect for Vasaro rose even higher. His action had placed Caprino between Vasaro and Andreas. Caprino was tempted to address Vasaro as the worthier of the two but turned instead to Andreas. "I am always overjoyed to accommodate any friends of Madonna Giulia. What is your pleasure?"
"I need a thief." Andreas leaned back in his chair and studied Caprino with narrowed eyes.
Caprino met his eyes and continued to smile politely. "It will be my pleasure to provide you with the finest thief in all of Florence, Your Magnificence. Only a thief, or must he possess other talents? An assassin, perhaps? I have a few associates who have talents in that direction, but no one with the extraordinary skills of Messer Vasaro."
Andreas stiffened. "You know of Vasaro?"
"How could I not?" Caprino remained sitting forward in his chair, one graceful hand resting with seeming casualness on the jeweled hilt of his dagger. "He shines in the firmament like a bright star, dazzling all who see him. Is it any wonder I should recognize him?"
"Not at all." Andreas cast an amused glance at Vasaro, who was still gazing at Caprino with no expression. "Do you hear that, Lorenzo? A star, by all that's holy. Aren't you going to thank the kind gentleman?"
Lorenzo inclined his head in acknowledgment.
"No thanks are needed," Caprino said quickly. "I merely gave homage where homage was due. It was foolish of me to suggest you might need an assassin when Messer Vasaro is in your service. Why should you need any--"
"As you say, I need no assassin," Andreas interrupted with sudden impatience. "I need a thief with hands as swift and sure as an arrow drawn by a master bowman and a touch as delicate as the kiss of a butterfly."
"There are many thieves in Florence," Caprino said thoughtfully. "I myself have trained an honored few."
"So I've been informed." Andreas's lips twisted in a cynical smile. "No doubt you've also tutored many individuals in my friend Lorenzo's former profession."
Caprino shrugged. "One or two. But to be an assassin requires a certain fortitude not found in every man. A thief is different. Easier. Not as profitable but . . ." He trailed off. "How long would you need this thief, my lord Andreas?"
Andreas went still. "You know me also?" His voice was dangerously soft. "Does my name, too, shine in the firmament?"
Caprino's hand tightened on the hilt of his dagger. He could feel a bead of moisture dampen his temple as he realized his mistake. He had judged Vasaro to be the threat. A stupid error. In his experience most soldiers, even condottieri, had none of the skill and subtlety Caprino admired. But he shouldn't have let his contempt for the profession overshadow his judgment of the man. No, that was not entirely true, Caprino admitted reluctantly. His instinctive revulsion at Andreas's overpowering virility had also contributed to the blunder by keeping him from a serious study of the man. Now he discerned the intelligence, as well as cynicism, in Andreas's brilliant dark eyes which were fully as merciless as those of Vasaro. Caprino moistened his lower lip with his tongue. "Your fame has spread over all Italy, my lord. An illustrious condottiere such as yourself must expect to be recognized and--" Caprino broke off. "I had no idea your visit to our city was in secret. If you wish to go unrecognized, then it goes without saying that I never have seen your face, never heard the sound of your voice, never even heard your name pronounced."
"And who did pronounce my name to you?" Andreas asked silkily. "And on what subject? I asked Giulia to tell no one I was in Florence."
"You know how careless women can be, Magnifico. When Madonna Giulia summoned me here, she mentioned your name but nothing else. I swear this, my lord Andreas. Would the Madonna have sent for me if I wasn't a man of discretion and honor?"
"Lorenzo?" Andreas's gaze never left Caprino's face.
Vasaro's voice was hoarse and scratchy as a wooden coffin pulled over flagstones. "He will betray you for a price high enough. Shall I dispose of him?" Lorenzo asked as casually as if he'd inquired about throwing out the dregs of the wine in Andreas's cup.
Caprino leaned forward in his chair, prepared to spring, his dagger at the ready for a--
"I think not," Andreas said. "He doesn't know enough to hurt me, and I'd find it inconvenient to search out another procurer."
"A wise decision." Caprino's grasp on his dagger relaxed. "A man should always keep the long view in mind. Now about this thief?"
"Just this moment I have thought of a quality he must possess," Andreas said, looking down at his heavy leather gauntlets on the table. "I must own him."
Andreas's long, broad index finger rubbed at the brass riveting of the gauntlet. "He must be mine body and soul. I'll not have him running back to you with tales you can sell to the highest bidder." Andreas smiled. "Of course, I could have him removed after he finishes his task, but I dislike rewarding good work in that fashion. Not an intelligent way to proceed."
"I can see that." Caprino's uneasy gaze darted to Vasaro. Rumor had it that Vasaro had accepted service with Andreas when the condottiere was a boy of seventeen. How had Andreas managed to hold such a skilled assassin all these years? Did he own him body and soul as he wished to own the thief? It was something to ponder, for who but Satan was capable of possessing a demon? "Such men aren't easy to find. How could I--"
"You must know ways." Andreas pulled a purse from his belt and tossed it on the table to Caprino. "Greed, revenge, a woman. We both know the weapons to bind a man. Use them."
Caprino opened the pouch and counted the ducats. "A fair price."
"A princely sum for one insignificant thief, as well you know, but a small price for the soul of a human being."
Caprino smiled. "I'm sure you'll discover shortly whether or not that is so." He paused. "I'm to keep this?" he asked as he tucked the purse inside his belt. "I'm honored by your trust."
"I can afford to trust you, Caprino. I know where to find you, if you disappoint me. When can I expect you to send me the thief I've paid for?"
"I'm not sure." Caprino stood up and edged toward the door. "I must consider and de--"
"Tomorrow." Andreas's tone had not changed, but his smile held the gleam of a feral creature. "No later than three. I'm an impatient man." His gaze searched Caprino's face. "You already have someone in mind. Bring him to me."
Caprino was startled. "But, Your Magnificence, I must study and think upon . . ." He stopped. How had that whoreson Andreas managed to read him so easily? "I do have someone in mind who might meet your requirements, but there are difficulties."
"I may need many more ducats than this pouch holds in order to do so."
Andreas's lips tightened. "I have an aversion to being preyed upon by the greedy. It would be wise to remember that."
Caprino lowered his lids to veil his eyes. "I'll not be beggared to obtain what you want. I'm worthy of my hire."
"If I slip a dagger between his ribs tonight, tomorrow there will be another Caprino in the streets of Florence," Vasaro said with little inflection. "Perhaps a man less greedy to deal with, Lion."
Caprino felt a chill quiver through him but carefully kept himself under control. He nodded. "Tomorrow or the next day or the day after that. I'm not so foolish as to think I'm irreplaceable. But Your Magnificence is impatient, and I'm the man who can help you today."
Andreas was silent for a moment during which Caprino tasted the sourness of fear.
Then Andreas made an impatient gesture. "I must see the skill of your light-fingered villian." He paused. "Tomorrow."
"But it's too soon. I can't--" Caprino stopped. He had gained a valuable concession, and it would be best not to push too hard at this juncture. "As Your Excellency bids me. I will move heaven and earth to do as you wish."
"I'll be at the Piazza of San Michele tomorrow at two with another purse containing an equal number of ducats," Andreas said. "If your thief can claim it from my person, the purse is yours. If not . . ." He shrugged. "Then I will be most unhappy with you. So unhappy they may end up fishing you out of the Arno." He waved a hand of dismissal. "Good night, Caprino. Why don't you see the gentleman to his home, Lorenzo?"
"It isn't far. I have a house near the piazza." Caprino moved quickly toward the door. "Good evening, my lords. Until tomorrow."
Andreas smiled mockingly. "Do accompany him, Lorenzo. The streets are so dangerous for a man with a purse full of ducats."
Andreas was toying with him, Caprino realized with a surge of rage. He turned at the door and smiled through clenched teeth. "You test whether I'm afraid of Messer Lorenzo? Well, I do fear him. I'm not a brave man, but it's not courage that's made me what I am. You might consider who has called the tune this night." His index finger tapped his left temple. "Up here. That's what counts." He bowed. "As you shall see tomorrow."
The door swung shut behind him, and the breath immediately rushed from Caprino's lungs in a soft explosion of sound as the tension eased from him. He straightened his short scarlet cape, meticulously adjusted his velvet cap at the angle he preferred, and started down the stairs. He gazed appraisingly at the painting of Venus in all her naked glory on the wall beside the stairs. The painting was new and exceptionally well executed, but the Venus was not overly beautiful, a circumstance which did not surprise him. Giulia would never permit anything or anyone to overshadow her own charms in her own casa.
"Buono sera, Caprino." Giulia Marzo met him at the bottom of the stairs. She smiled sweetly. "All is well?"
Caprino shifted his cloak to reveal the purse.
She held out her hand palm upward. "A joy to work with you, Caprino."
"Tomorrow," he said as he tried to edge past her.
"Now." Her smile never wavered. "Or I'll tell my lord Andreas you have no intention of fulfilling your promise to find his thief and even now are hurrying toward the city gates. I doubt you would ever reach that splendid house paid for by the ducats stolen from your whores and thieves."
He stopped short and turned to look at her. He should have known Giulia would have been listening to everything taking place in Andreas's chamber. It was not only the slut's golden beauty that had caused her to rise from one of his own brothels to own this fine casa. He reluctantly opened the pouch and pressed five ducats into her palm. "Someday, when I lose patience with you, I'll have you brought back to me," he said softly. "And I'll strip you naked and stake you out in an alley and sell that sweet-smelling flesh to every man who walks by. How do you think your find lords will like you after a few weeks of such use?"
"You don't frighten me." She shrugged. "You cannot hurt me, Caprino. I have the protection of many powerful men here in Florence."
"Like that bastard up there?" Caprino jerked his head in the direction of the door at the top of the stairs. "Andreas has no power here in Florence. He rules only in Mandara."
"At present." Giulia's gaze lifted to look at the door he'd indicated. "Lion could rule anywhere. Men such as he are rare."
Caprino's gaze narrowed on her face. "Do I detect a trace of lust, madonna mia? Be careful, or you'll lose your own weapon in Cupid's battle. A whore must never lust; she must only be lusted after."
"He does lust after me," she said fiercely. "For two years he has come to my casa. Never has he asked for any of the other women, only me." Then as she met Caprino's satisfied gaze she tried to shrug unconcernedly. "Not that it matters."
"I think it does matter to you." He studied her. "I wonder why? You have the most peculiar tastes. I find him quite ugly."
"How would you know? I've provided you with too many pretty young boys and wretched-looking men not to know how peculiar are your tastes, Caprino."
He tucked the purse into his belt and said mockingly, "He's far too rough for my refined taste. Soldiers can be so crude. But there's another five ducats for you if you find out why our brave condottiere wishes the services of a thief."
Giulia's gaze returned to the door at the top of the stairs. "I'll consider it. But he's not a man who babbles to a woman."
"Not even to la bella Giulia?" He turned away. "Seven ducats."
He opened the door and strode out into the street.
It had been a good evening's work, he thought contentedly. The stakes Andreas was hoping to win must be very high to make him yield to Caprino's demands with so little argument. If he was clever he might be able to milk this situation until it rained even more gold into his coffers.
He turned at the next corner and instead of proceeding to his own house off the piazza, he started in the direction of the Via Calimala and the print shop of Giovanni Ballano.
"You gave in too easily," Lorenzo said as the door closed behind Caprino. "I could have persuaded him to take less."
Lion lifted the goblet to his lips. "If Caprino brings me what I want, it will be worth the price."
Lorenzo shrugged. "If you believe it to be so."
"I do." Lion propped his feet on the table, crossing his legs at the ankles. "We leave the day after tomorrow for Solinari."
"If Caprino's thief succeeds in your little test."
"He'd better, or I'll let you have Caprino to persuade as you deem fitting."
The faintest smile lifted Lorenzo's lips. "No, you won't."
Lion lifted a black brow. "You think I'm too kind to condemn Caprino to your tender care?"
"I think you would take pleasure in punishing Caprino yourself, but you'd not give him to me." His gaze met Lion's. "Why do you persist in trying to save my soul when I lost it long ago? When I was a child of eleven, to be precise. That was when I killed my first man. What were you doing when you were eleven, Lion?"
"Following my father's banner, watching his men pillage and rape cities. I killed my first man when I was thirteen." He paused. "And I don't consider my soul lost."
"Ah, but your killing was bathed in glory and honor," Lorenzo said softly. "There's no glory in the world of an assassin."
"Killing is killing."
"If you thought that was true, you'd let me go after Caprino."
Lion smiled. "Perhaps I will."
"No, you won't. To do it, you'd have to live in Caprino's world. My world."
"It's not your world. Your world is Mandara now."
"Because you say it is?"
"Because you earned a place there thirteen years ago."
"With an assassin's knife."
"Which saved my life and avenged my father."
"Glory and honor." Lorenzo's gravelly voice was mocking. "You see how your mind works? I fear you have a grievous fault, Lion. Somehow you've managed to acquire the instincts of a bygone age. Chivalry will never prevail in a land where men like me can grow rich."
"Chivalry? My God, you're demented, Lorenzo. No one is more of a realist than I. If you want chivalry, I'm afraid you'll have to apply to Marco."
"I agree your brother is sickeningly pure and honorable, but I suspect you're infected with a less virulent form of the same disease." As Lion started to speak, Lorenzo held up his hand. "Perhaps you don't adhere to the philosophy, my friend, but the instinct is certainly there. Look how you've insisted on trying to keep me by your side so I wouldn't return to cutting the throats of the illustrious noblemen of Naples."
"Most of them needed killing."
"But I never inquired whether they did or not." Lorenzo smiled faintly. "Killing is killing."
"By all that's holy, Lorenzo, will you stop turning my words against me? Why will you not admit that you're no longer what you were?"
"Because I am what I am and what I was and what I will be."
"Cristo!" Lion drew an exasperated breath. "And what are you then, damn your cryptic soul?"
A sudden smile lit Lorenzo's narrow face. "I told you I had no soul. I am many things but I can think of only one that has merit."
"And what is that?"
"I'm the friend of Lionello Andreas," Lorenzo said softly.
Lion gazed at him suspiciously. "I have the uneasy feeling you're making mock of me again."
Lorenzo raised his brows. "But of course," he said blandly. "How can a man who has no soul know friendship? I'm glad you're so perceptive. It shows I've trained you well in these last thirteen years."
Lion swore softly beneath his breath. "Lorenzo, someday I'll--"
"My lord, the hour grows late." Giulia Marzo was standing in the doorway smiling at them. "If you please, I'll show Messer Vasaro to his chamber. Does he wish a companion? I have a sweet little Sicilian girl who could show him much pleasure."
"Lorenzo?" Lion glanced at Vasaro.
Lorenzo shook his head. "Not tonight."
"Nor any night of late." Lion gazed at him speculatively. "I fear you're beginning to have the tastes of a monk. It was not always so."
"I'm an old man of forty-four. Perhaps I've lost my virility," Lorenzo said lightly as he turned and moved toward the door. "I find my books more stimulating than these fair flowers at present. But pray don't let me stop you from frolicking in Venus's garden."
"I won't." Lion's lingering gaze ran over Giulia's bare shoulders and then down the fullness of her breasts. "I promise you."