Assassin's Creed: Renaissance Page 51

‘Caterina -‘

‘Don’t you “Caterina” me, you toad! Just get the men to deal with the luggage and for God’s sake get me to Venice. I need a bath and I need wine!’

Girolamo bridled. ‘I’ve a good mind to leave you here and go on to Pordenone without you.’

‘We should have gone by land in any case.’

‘It’s too dangerous, travelling by road.’

‘Yes! For a spineless creature like you!’

Girolamo was silent as Ezio continued to watch. Then he said cunningly, ‘Why don’t you step into this gondola here -‘ he indicated one, ‘and I will find a pair of gondoliers immediately.’

‘Hmmn! Talking sense at last!’ she growled and allowed him to hand her into the boat. But once she was settled, Girolamo quickly cast off its painter and gave the prow a mighty shove, sending the gondola off into the lagoon.

‘Buon viaggio!’ he shouted nastily.

‘Bastardo!’ she flung back. Then, realizing her predicament, she began to shout, ‘Aiuto! Aiuto!‘ But Girolamo was walking back to where a knot of servants hovered uncertainly round a stack of luggage, and started giving them orders. Presently he moved off with them and the baggage to another part of the dock, where he started organizing a private ferry for himself.

Meanwhile Ezio had watched the plight of the woman Caterina, half-amused, certainly, but also half-concerned. She fixed him with her eye.

‘Hey, you! Don’t just stand there! I need help!’

Ezio unbuckled his sword, slipped off his shoes and doublet, and dived in.

Back on the quay, a smiling Caterina gave a dripping Ezio her hand. ‘My hero,’ she said.

‘It was nothing.’

‘I might have drowned! For all that porco cares!’ She looked at Ezio appreciatively. ‘But you! My goodness, you must be strong. I couldn’t believe how you managed to swim back pulling the gondola by its rope with me in it.’

‘As light as a feather,’ said Ezio.

‘Flatterer!’

‘I mean, those boats are so well balanced -‘

Caterina frowned.

‘It was an honour to serve you, signora,’ Ezio finished, lamely.

‘I must return the favour some day,’ she said, her eyes full of the meaning behind her words. ‘What is your name?’

‘Auditore, Ezio.’

‘I’m Caterina.’ She paused. ‘Where are you bound?’

‘I was going to Venice, but I have no pass, so the ferry -‘

‘Basta!’ She interrupted him. ‘So this little official wouldn’t let you on, is that it?’

‘Yes.’

‘We’ll see about that!’ She stormed off down the jetty without waiting for Ezio to put on his shoes and doublet. By the time he caught up with her she had reached the ferry and was already, from what he could gather, giving the quaking man an earful. All he could hear as he arrived was the captain burbling in the most servile way: ‘Yes, Altezza; of course, Altezza; whatever you say, Altezza.’

‘It had better be as I say! Unless you want your head on a spike! Here he is! Go and fetch his horse and his things yourself! Go on! And treat him well! I’ll know about it if you don’t!’ The captain hurried away. Caterina turned to Ezio. ‘There, you see? Settled!’

‘Thank you, Madonna.’

‘One good turn -‘ She looked at him. ‘But I hope our paths cross again.’ She held out her hand. ‘I am from Forlì. Come there one day. It would be my pleasure to welcome you.’ She gave him her hand, and was about to depart.

‘Don’t you want to get to Venice too?’

She looked at him again, and at the ferry. ‘On this scrapheap? Don’t jest with me!’ And she was gone, sailing along the quay in the direction of her husband, who was just seeing the last of their luggage loaded.

The captain scuttled up, leading Ezio’s horse. ‘Here you are sir. My most humble apologies, sir. Had I but known, sir…’

‘I’ll need my horse stabled when we arrive.’

‘It’ll be my pleasure, sir.’

As the ferry pulled away and set off across the lead-coloured water of the lagoon, Leonardo, who’d watched the whole episode, said wryly, ‘You know who that was, don’t you?’

‘I wouldn’t mind if she were my next conquest,’ smiled Ezio.

‘Then watch your step! That’s Caterina Sforza, the daughter of the Duke of Milan. And her husband’s the Duke of Forlì, and a nephew of the Pope.’

‘What’s his name?’

‘Girolamo Riario.’

Ezio was silent. The surname rang a bell. Then he said, ‘Well, he married a fireball.’

‘As I say,’ replied Leonardo. ‘Watch your step.’

12

Venice in 1481, under the steady rule of Doge Giovanni Mocenigo, was, on the whole, a good place to be. There was peace with the Turks, the city prospered, the trade routes by sea and land were secure, interest rates were admittedly high, but investors were bullish, and savers content. The Church was wealthy too, and artists flourished under the dual patronage of their spiritual and temporal patrons. The city, rich from the wholesale looting of Constantinople after the Fourth Crusade, diverted by Doge Dandolo from its true object, had brought Byzantium to its knees, displayed the booty unashamedly: the four bronze horses ranged along the upper façade of St Mark’s Basilica being the most obvious.

But Leonardo and Ezio, arriving at the Molo on that early summer morning, had no idea of the city’s debased, treacherous and pilfering past. They only saw the glory of the pink marble and brickwork of the Palazzo Ducale, the broad square reaching forwards and to the left, the brick campanile of astonishing height, and the slightly built Venetians themselves, in their dark clothes, flitting like shadows along the terra ferma, or navigating their labyrinthine, malodorous canals in a variety of boats, from elegant gondolas to ungainly barges, the latter laden with all sorts of produce, from fruit to bricks.

The Conte da Pexaro’s servants took charge of Leonardo’s effects and, at his suggestion, also took charge of Ezio’s horse, and further promised to arrange suitable lodgings for the young banker’s son from Florence. They then dispersed, leaving one behind, a fat, sallow young man with bulging eyes, whose shirt was damp with sweat, and whose smile would have made syrup hang its head in shame.

‘Altezze,’ he simpered, approaching them. ‘Allow me to introduce myself. I am Nero, the Conte’s personal funzionario da accoglienza. It will be my duty and my pleasure to offer you a short guided introduction to our proud city before the Conte receives you…’ here Nero looked nervously between Leonardo and Ezio, trying to decide which of the two was the commissioned artist, and luckily for him settled on Leonardo, the one who looked less like a man of action, ‘... Messer Leonardo, for a glass of Veneto before dinner, which meal Messer will be pleased to take in the upper servants’ hall.’ He bowed and scraped a little more, for good measure. ‘Our gondola awaits…’

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