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1636 The Flight of the Nightingale: Chapter Ten

       Last updated: Friday, November 8, 2019 19:05 EST



    “Keep hold of that thought,” Roberto said. He looked to Cesare. “You look like you have unhappy news.”

    “With what you now consider, perhaps less unhappy and more confirming.” And the guard commander’s expression had indeed eased a bit. “The short tale is that most of the guards have no recollection of seeing Maestra Caccini in the last several days. Given what you now suspect she has done, that comes as no surprise. But…”

    “But?” Roberto arched his eyebrows.

    “Two of the guards claim to have seen her a few nights ago. But I don’t know that I believe them.”

    “Which guards?”

    “Giuseppe and Ercole.”

    “Of course,” Roberto said, sitting back in his chair. Alessandro rolled his eyes, and Paolo gave a snort but said nothing else. “It wanted only those two to be involved to make this a matter of earth-shaking importance.”

    “Now, Roberto,” Alessandro said, “you know that Vesuvius has been quiet for several years, but there is no need to tempt fortune.”

    Paolo made the signs of the horn with his off hand to avert the ill luck. The palace-major pointed at him. “Paolo, bring those two here.”

    “With pleasure,” the attendant said with a grim smile. He looked at Cesare.

    “They were caught asleep on night duty a few nights ago, and are in the holding room at the back of the stables,” the guard commander said. He pulled a key from his belt and tossed it to Paolo, who nabbed it one-handed in mid-air and stalked out the door.

    “I can almost feel sorry for them,” Cesare said.

    “Almost,” Roberto replied.

    Alessandro said nothing, but gave an evil-sounding chuckle.

    The guards of the palace were all somewhat leery of Paolo Gagliardi. He was by far the hardest, toughest soldier any of them had ever met, and he wasn’t shy about demonstrating that on some hapless guard who happened to rouse his ire. Consequently, when the door to their holding cell swung open in a few minutes to reveal Paolo standing there, it was certain that the two miscreants would suddenly realize that their lives had just gotten more complicated.

    The three of them observed the map and discussed the virtues and shortcomings of the path that La Cecchina had apparently mapped out. They had pretty well decided that for two people on foot, it was perhaps the easiest way to take once they got over the Apennine Mountains to Bologna. That stretch would be a hard hike, once they got past Fiesole. But after that, relatively easy walking, perhaps two days between each of the major stops noted in the path.

    “Of course, if she has the money to buy horses, it could be done faster than that,” Cesare said.

    “Don’t remind me,” Roberto replied. “But if she had that kind of money, would she have taken off on the sly like that?”

    “Since we still don’t know why she ran, maybe.” The guard commander’s voice was matter-of-fact.

    “And she may have more money that anyone knows,” Alessandro said. “Remember, Tommaso Raffaelli was a nobleman with property in Lucca. His family may have forced her out, but who knows what she came away with?”

    “Thank you for making the picture even darker than before,” Roberto said dryly.

    “My pleasure,” Alessandro said with a smile.

    Paolo appeared in the doorway, turned sideways, and waved a hand toward the inner office. “In,” he said brusquely.

    Giuseppe and Ercole slunk into the office, and bunched together to one side of Roberto’s desk, opposite where their commander and the assistant palace-major stood, both with their arms folded and matching glowers on their faces. Ercole tried to edge behind Giuseppe, but Paolo cleared his throat, and both of them jumped forward and stiffened.

    “Commander Falconieri, tell me what is pertinent in this matter, please.” Roberto leaned back in his chair and folded his hands together, resting the steepled index fingers on his chin.

    Cesare cleared his throat, causing to two guards to flinch. “These two had the night duty on the garden gate three nights ago. They were found sound asleep in the middle of the night with an empty wineskin between them. I’ve had them stored away, waiting for some little task to come up that they can undertake, some little punishment detail that can put them in the proper frame of mind for the next time I put them on duty somewhere.” The guard commander’s voice was calm, but there was an edge beneath it that caused both Giuseppe and Ercole to flinch when he said ‘punishment detail’. “Oh,” he said almost as an afterthought, “the gate was also unlocked. We found the key on the piazza beside Ercole’s slumbering body.”

    Roberto raised his eyebrows in surprise. He hadn’t heard about this…not that he necessarily would. It was up to the commander to control his guards and handle the day to day operations and infractions. Yet Cesare usually told him of anything serious. He tilted his head a bit toward the commander, and Cesare did quirk the corner of his mouth up in a rueful acknowledgment.

    The palace-major stood and walked around his desk, then leaned back against it and crossed his arms, keeping the two miscreant guards in his gaze all that time. He let the silence build. Giuseppe and Ercole both wilted under the gaze, and began to fidget.

    “Messere,” Giuseppe began, only to stop when Paolo slapped him on the back of the head with one of his very calloused palms.

    “You were not told to speak,” the attendant snarled. Giuseppe ducked his head, and stared at the floor. Ercole kept his mouth shut, and tried to edge away from his companion in whatever mishaps they were guilty of. Roberto knew they were guilty of something. It was just a question of what.

    “Asleep on guard duty,” Roberto finally said in a musing tone. “Tsk, tsk. A signal failure of responsibility. Ah, in the old days, that would have been grounds for some serious punishment. What did we do to the last detail that slept while on guard, Paolo? Did we flog them?”

    “No, that was the detail before last, the ones who fell asleep on the night before the battle and were supposed to be guarding the camp.” Both the miscreants gulped at that pronouncement. “No, the last detail were the ones in that garrison we posted in that little village in Bavaria. Them we just slapped around a little bit and put to permanent stable duty for the duration of the time the garrison was there.” He gave a remarkably evil grin. “And I made sure they took care of their work. Nothing like swinging a hay fork and a manure shovel for over a hundred horses to keep them too busy to fall asleep.”

    “Hmm, “Roberto, said, his hand on his chin. “Do we have a hundred horses, Falconieri?”

    “Sadly, we do not,” Cesare replied. “And even if we did, I’m reasonably certain I would not want these two caring for them. I’m sure I can find a couple of village idiots who would do the work just as well, and cause less trouble while they were about it.”

    Ercole nodded strongly at that, causing Roberto to smile just a bit. Giuseppe’s eyebrows started to draw down in an incipient frown…until Paolo spoke up.

    “You can leave that to me, Capitano.”

    Both Giuseppe and Ercole were now looking a little sick. Ercole looked up and said, diffidently, “Please, Messere…”

    Roberto raised a hand in time enough to prevent Paolo from administering a correction to the second of the two miscreants. “Yes, Ercole?”

    “We didn’t mean to fall asleep. And we can’t figure out why we did. I mean, we’ve had night duty lots of times, and never fell asleep before, even when we’d had lots of wine before going to the gate.”



    Roberto looked to Cesare, who nodded in confirmation of Ercole’s assertions. He picked up on something Ercole said. “So were you drunk? Is that what you’re saying?”

    “No, Messere,” Ercole raised his hands in protest. “That was the night there was no wine with supper, only bad beer. We were ready to drink water, we were, when Maestra Caccini brought us a sack of wine.”

    “Oh?” Roberto’s ears perked up at that, but he kept his tone level. “And just why would she do that? What would the court’s leading musician have to do with the like of you?” He let a bit of scorn edge his voice.

    “But she did,” Giuseppe interjected. “She said she owed it to us, and she brought us a skin.”

    “But it was a small skin,” Ercole continued. “It might have gotten one of us drunk if he drank all of it. But not enough to pass out. And split between the two of us, no. That could not have happened.”

    “This wineskin,” Cesare said. “Where is it? I don’t remember seeing it, and it wasn’t with you in the holding room.”

    Roberto tensed a bit as Giuseppe stuck his hand inside his jerkin, then relaxed as he pulled out a flattened wineskin. Paolo pulled it out of his hand and stalked over to stand beside the palace-major. He held the wineskin up, commenting, “It’s not very large, at that. Nice piece of work, though.”

    “‘s why I kept it,” Giuseppe muttered.

    Paolo pulled the stopper out of the mouth of the skin and took a sniff. “Wine. Probably cheap wine, because it’s been mixed with honey.” He stuck a finger in the opening, then pulled it out again and licked it. His eyebrows drew down, he frowned at the wineskin, and stuck his finger back in. He tasted the result again, and smacked his lips a couple of times. Still frowning, he looked up to Roberto. “They may be right, Capitano.”

    Roberto was surprised at that. “How so?”

    “There’s a taste there, one that’s not wine or honey.” Paolo repeated the finger taste a third time, and this time he nodded afterward. “Poppy.”

    “Opium?” Roberto asked sharply. “You’re sure?”

    “Sure there’s something there not wine, and pretty sure it’s poppy. That one field surgeon that was with General Piccolomini a few years ago liked to use that with the badly wounded, and he would mix it with cheap wine.”

    “I remember,” Roberto said. He also recalled that Paolo had taken a saber cut in a skirmish that had been intended for him, so had reason to remember that surgeon. He looked back at the two miscreants, eyes narrowed. They stiffened at that. “What hour of the night did this happen?”

    “Does this mean you believe us?” Giuseppe asked, only to receive another slap on the back of his head.

    “Idiot!” Paolo snarled. “Don’t blather. Answer the question, and otherwise keep your mouth shut.”

    “It was about second hour of the night watch,” Ercole offered. Giuseppe nodded sullenly, hand on the back of his head.

    Roberto leaned back again. After a moment, he said, “Return them to their holding space.”

    “Right.” Paolo bent a glower at the two hapless guards. “You know the way. Move.” Moments later, they were gone, and their footsteps were receding.

    “Per Dio,” Cesare shook his head. “The Maestra, she plans like a general. She must have read Machiavelli.”

    “No need,” Alessandro said. “She grew up in the grand duke’s court, and was watching Princess Christine for years. She needed no other lessons.”

    “Indeed,” Roberto said. “As you said. Sly, subtle, sneaky, yet restrained. She did nothing more than she had to do.”

    There was a long moment of silence, eventually broken by Alessandro. “This was planned, of course.” His voice was dry.

    “Of course it was,” Roberto said. “And for quite some time, from appearances. Although I would like to know why she picked those two for her escape route.”

    “Because they are the ones that everyone goes to bring little things into the palace that may not have tariffs properly paid or may not have their provenance documented fully.” Paolo’s voice was dry as he walked back in the door. “The Maestra was undoubtedly a past customer; she would know them, they would know her, she could approach them, they would take a wineskin from her. And she undoubtedly knew them for the kind of men they are. She knew they would drink the wine immediately, and with the poppy in it, they would go to sleep very quickly. She undoubtedly stood and watched it, and left at her leisure afterward.” The attendant shook his head. “Cold and hard. Don’t make wagers with this woman.”

    Roberto began to laugh. “See, see? Maximum confusion, maximum obfuscation, with minimum effort. What a condottiere that woman would have made.” He shook his head in admiration, still smiling.

    The smile trailed off a moment later. “So, the Maestra has apparently been gone from the palace for over three days now, and her daughter has been missing longer than that. Her room has been cleared of everything of value to her except her lute. She’s not at Convento della Crocetta, or Paolo would have discovered her when he went to look for her daughter. And this,” he waved the paper, “makes it look like she planned to leave Firenze and head north.” He straightened, feeling his mouth set in a grim line. “The grand duke and the princess must hear what we have discovered, and I suspect they will not be happy.”

    There were no smiles from the other men.

    “I need to report this to the duke,” Roberto said. “And you,” he said, forestalling whatever Alessandro had opened his mouth to say, “will all be coming with me. Now.” And with that, he led the way out of the office, hearing them all fall in behind him.

    It took them a while to locate the grand duke, but they finally located him out on the back terrace of the palace, testing one of his new telescopes.

    “Your Grace,” Roberto said as he drew near. The others stopped a few steps behind him.

    “Excellent,” Grand Duke Ferdinando exclaimed. For a moment the palace-major was startled, but then he realized the duke was referring to the new telescope. “I can see the Forte del Belvedere quite clearly. Make a note, if you would, to send word to the fort commander that the roof of the central keep has several broken tiles on it.”

    “As you direct, Your Grace,” Roberto said. He pointed at Alessandro, who nodded. “In the matter of Maestra Francesca Caccini, Your Grace…”

    The grand duke lowered the telescope and looked back at the palace-major, then around the terrace. “Is she ill? Is she…dead?”

    “Neither, Your Grace.” Roberto saw the duke relax a bit.

    “Is she with Princess Christine, then?”

    “No, Your Grace.”

    The grand duke looked around and frowned. “She is not here, either. Where is the Maestra, then?”

    Roberto took a deep breath. “She appears to have left the palace, and probably Firenze, altogether, Your Grace.”

    The grand duke turned and faced Roberto and his associates. “She what?”

    “She appears…”

    Ferdinando waved his hand. “I heard what you said. Piero,” he snapped. The page sprang up from a nearby bench. “Go to the princess, tell her we have word of La Cecchina, and I request her presence in the small reception room as soon as she can make her way there. Once you see that she is on her way, return to me there at once.”

    Piero bobbed his head and took off at a run.

    “You,” the duke said, almost snapping at them as well, “with me.”

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