THE DOME OF FLORENCE, by Richard Marsden:
Mahir had to admit to himself The Dome of Florence, even though incomplete, was easily the largest building he had ever encountered. The dome’s arcing columns of slate-gray stone towered over the red-tiled roofs of every building in the city. Even Florence’s impressive walls, designed to fend off trebuchets and smoke-belching cannons, were dwarfed by the cathedral in the making. He could make out scaffolds and tiny moving dots he imagined to be workers, who like ants, swarmed about the dome in an effort to complete the project: a project that had started over a century ago. To finish such a structure would be impossible; which was precisely why he was there.
He tucked his head low and waited in line behind merchants, monks, courtesans and country-side laborers to get into the city. The gates were squat and wide and emanated an air of unfriendliness. The wooden doors were open, but chains were lashed about them and Mahir could see uniformed guards of the Republic ready to slam shut the mighty portal at a moment’s notice with the flip of a lever. Other guards searched people as they entered and Mahir sighed as he expected trouble. For a city trying to proclaim to the world its wealth, culture and power, it was hardly inviting anyone to get too close. He had a sense that perhaps the great dome being built was not for the world, but for Florence alone.
“You! Next,” said a guard clad in a red uniform with white stripes running down it. He slammed his halberd’s butt onto the cobbled stone. “Moor,” he said with a curl of his lip.
Some of the other guards narrowed their eyes and moved in on Mahir. Florence was opposed to his people not only over issues of race, but due to religion and more importantly Trade. Mahir restrained a smile. If the Florentines knew the truth about him they would have even a greater reason to be filled with distrust and loathing.
Mahir had the talent. With but a word he could unleash all manner of horrors onto the guard and his companions, but that would serve him little. Besides, Rome was nearby and the Inquisitors were jealous guardians of what they believed to be their art. They Inquisition made all manner of claims about how they could root out witchcraft, sorcery and heresy. Not all of those claims were superstitious fables. The elite members of the clergy with the talent could feel another using the power if they were close by.
Mahir bowed his head and spread his hands out wide showing them to be empty. It was a submissive gesture as well, meant to allay the guards of their ill demeanor. “A poor Moor, yes,” he said while lowering his gaze. “Come to labor on the great works of Florence.”
One of the soldiers strutted up and poked at Mahir with his dirty fingers, moving Mahir’s robes aside and frowning at what he found. He tapped the bottles that dangled from his body.
“What’s all this junk? What sort of laborer needs all that? You dress too much like a Gypsy for my tastes.” The guard snapped his eyes onto Mahir. “Besides, I’d not let un-Christian hands touch a single stone within the Republic. Go away, heathen.”
“Oh please, sir,” Mahir said, keeping his voice low and his eyes downcast. “I am a Christian.” Actually, he wasn’t. “I converted in the city of Tunis and fled to the bosom of Christendom. Florence is where God’s work has called me.” Also not true, he had fled Tunis when the Imams caught on to his talent. “I have been summoned by a great builder.” That was true. It was only fortune that a letter from his friend arrived shortly before the disaster in Tunis and gave Mahir somewhere to go.
“Filippo Brunelleschi,” Mahir said solemnly as if invoking a name of one of the Saints the Catholics venerated.
The two guards exchanged nervous stares. They nodded in unison and the man prodding Mahir gave a slight, almost gentle, push, compared to his rough inspection before.
“Move on.” His tone was far less threatening. He peered over Mahir’s shoulder at the next visitor wishing entrance into the wealthy city and the annoyance returned.
Mahir whispered his thanks and shuffled into the well-guarded city. Once inside he was surprised to find a level of monotony that had him instantly lost. Every building was more or less the same. The stones were gray and blended in with the road. Windows were all at identical levels and the roofs of each and every building were covered with dull, dusty, red tile. For a city famous for its culture, the architecture of the regular buildings left little to be desired.
People mingled freely in the street and the sound was a continual babble of conversation: hawkers selling their wares, companions discussing politics, and prostitutes openly soliciting their services alongside laymen priests who preached about the Christian God. The only landmark Mahir could make out was the incomplete dome.
Sighing, he wrapped his robes about himself and shuffled down the clogged streets, easing past people and begging his pardon when angry eyes focused upon him. The summer heat didn’t bother Mahir, but there was humidity in the air that he imagined came from all the human bodies being pressed so close together in the warren of Florence’s streets. The word, stifling, came to mind.
Not only was the city infuriatingly similar the streets were deceptive. Three times he had been close to the dome only to have the road inexplicably end at a shop or inn. If any army managed to breach Florence’s walls he was sure it would soon get lost in its haphazard street and find themselves funneled into vain, but perhaps amusing, assaults against a cheese monger’s house, or a jaunty tavern.
Eventually, Mahir passed through a wooden gate into a grand courtyard that was filled with pulleys, rope, blocks of stone and the tools of carpenters, masons and just about every other artisan he could think of. Dust-coated laborers milled about, either taking respite in the shade, or hauling supplies to the criss-crossing wooden platforms that surrounded the massive dome. Mahir craned his head up. Ropes swayed from the scaffolding like vines and he had to shield his eyes from the sun to see the precarious zenith of the network of wooden struts and rungs which encased the grand project.
“Impressive, is it not?” a voice said from behind him.
Mahir felt a minor disturbance of the mystic-field. Someone was tapping into their talent. Smiling, Mahir turned. The man before him was short, balding and dressed in a tunic spattered with dust, clay and other signs of vigorous work. An apron was slung about his waist and in it were tucked all manner of measuring instruments and tools. Time had added wrinkles to him, destroyed most of his hair, but Mahir still recognized his companion of old.
“You are insane to do that, Filippo,” Mahir whispered, but smiled and bowed low. Any onlookers would see nothing but a subservient Moor scraping before the feet of Florence’s Master architect.
“Hardly,” Filippo replied, “My talents are limited in the art. I’m sure I won’t get noticed for just a friendly hello.” He winked.
“Rome is that way. Almost within eyesight.” Mahir gestured south. “I can smell the pyres from here.” He wagged his finger at Filippo. “You are a madman for working so close to them.”
“And yet you came,” Filippo said and pursed his lips. He glanced away as if his eyes had caught sight of something on the ground. They returned to Mahir quick enough.
Mahir sighed. “I did. Your letter arrived at a — ” he cleared his throat, “fortunate time. Tunis had become unsuitable. I must have been careless and barely escaped with my life. For the time being, Florence is safer than Tunis.” Mahir grinned. “I have not seen you since our days of study at the Arte della Seta. You were but a goldsmith back then. You were kind to write to me for all these years.”
“And you,” Filippo said, “were but a foreigner with a knack for weaving rugs. You were kind to answer my letters. Especially the last. Old history aside, I am glad you came. I have a problem.”
“Your last letter said as much, but you were wisely discreet.” Mahir looked up at the towering dome. “Is that the problem?” He hoped not. Mahir’s talent was in the realm of chemicals, liquids and what the crimson-clad inquisitors would call demonology. Filippo was the one gifted with the talent to see patterns where others could not; his was a talent much more suited to construction than Mahir’s.
The Master architect grinned and his cheeks flushed. He turned and walked away from the monstrous and incomplete dome towards one of the ubiquitous gray buildings within the bustling courtyard.
“No,” Filippo answered, “I’ve solved that one on my own. But knowing how to finish the dome is not enough. To be honored with the project I must edge out various competitors.”
Mahir shuffled behind Filippo. “But you know how to build it. That should be the end of the matter.”
“It’s not that simple, Mahir. The city is flooded with Master architects who think they can complete the dome. A thousand voices are chirping to be heard.” Filippo looked over his shoulder. “I need the city’s blessing. Or namely, the blessing of the one man who runs this city.” He cleared his throat. “Cosimo Medici.”
Mahir sucked in a breath. “Powerful man. Even in Tunis the name is known and nothing good is said of him.” He licked his lips. “I still do not know why you asked for me to come with great haste and alarm, my friend. I am not a builder and I have no political connections to one such as Cosimo.” He shrugged. “With Tunis untenable, I am once again a foreigner in a hardly welcoming Italy.”
Filippo entered the building through a stout wooden door and Mahir followed. Inside it was notably cooler and the interior once may have been living quarters, but it had been transformed into a great workroom. Drawers, tables, diagrams, and small wooden miniatures decorated the chamber. Mahir could make out a bed stuffed in the corner, as if forgotten. Currently, it was being used as a place to store hammers and chisels.
The Master architect plopped himself in a wooden chair. He leveled his gaze upon Mahir. “You can be more help than you imagine. I told Cosimo I knew of a powerful Moorish wizard — ”
“You did what?” Mahir blinked and he felt his blood turn to ice. He jogged to the door and slammed it shut to ensure no wandering passersby outside heard what was being said. Just one witness and a whisper later the Inquisitors could find them.
Rounding on Filippo, Mahir rammed his fist into the palm of his hand with a loud smack. “You have the talent and you know it must not be shared. You think the Inquisition cares if your talent is great or small? And think of how many you put at risk! We are a rare breed, my friend, and with a loose tongue we will be extinct.”
The man scratched his bald head and shrugged, then gave a lazy smile. “Well, are you done raging?”
“Hardly, but go on,” Mahir snapped.
“Times are changing. Just as our types become rare, so to does the desire to find us. Rome isn’t what it used to be. Spain is more dangerous than the Vatican. I told Cosimo Medici that a great, Moorish wizard could turn lead into gold. That he could see through the murky depths of time and discern the future. That he could thwart all of his enemies. I rattled off every trick, lie and truth that I could. Cosimo promised me that he could ensure the Arte della Lana would have the wisdom to choose me as the man to complete the dome if I brought him a real wizard.”
Mahir rubbed his nose. “The wool guild is in charge of the project?”
Filippo laughed. “No, no. Of course not. Cosimo Medici is. He is in charge of everything. This is no Republic. It is a spider’s web, and he is the spider.” Filippo leaned forward. “Besides, don’t be so harsh on the guilds. You never know what’s really going on inside them.” He winked.
To that, Mahir could agree. The Arte della Seta was a guild whose front was one of fabrics and weaving, but in truth hid a school for those with mystical talents. Alas, the school was no more, or at least it no longer taught others how to use the talent. It had not gone out in a blaze of Inquisitorial hate, but rather had dwindled and simply run out of promising students. Perhaps Filippo was right when he said times were changing — perhaps Rome was running shy on talent as well?
A pain was forming behind Mahir’s eyes and he rubbed the bridge of his nose. He had too much to think about, but the most immediate was Filippo’s transgression against secrecy. “What possessed you to risk so much? If the Inquisition finds out: you die. If any other wizard or witch were to find out: you die. If Cosimo Medici isn’t happy with me: you die. What does it matter if you get to build the dome or not? Go build something else.”
He paced back and forth and shot the Master architect a withering look.
Filippo’s eyes narrowed and he sniffed. “Because Ghiberti is one of the competitors.”
Mahir rolled his eyes. Jealousy? Professional jealousy had led Filippo to risking not only his own life, but that of Mahir’s?
“That was over fifteen years ago.” Mahir shook his head.
“No, Mahir. That was eighteen years and three months ago.” Filippo tilted his head. “I cheated using the talent to sculpt those doors and still Ghiberti won!” He rose from his chair. “Not this time. This time I shall win without the talent. My engineering and mathematics will even the score.”
“But you’ll cheat another way by using me?” Mahir tilted his head and stared at his companion.
“Yes! It’s only fair — I’m sure that bastard is pulling as many strings as he can as well. He who gets Cosimo’s ear, gets to build the dome.” Filippo brushed past Mahir. “Now come along. I’ll take you to the center of the web.” The Master architect turned and gripped Mahir’s arm. “Tunis is dry and dusty anyways. If this works out, I get to build the dome, Ghiberti is chased away like a beaten dog, and Cosimo Medici rewards you lavishly.” He peered at Mahir. “You deserve rewards.”
Mahir wasn’t so sure that he deserved anything. Letting out a long breath, Mahir replied, “You do know what happens if this does not work out?”
“Yes, yes,” Filippo answered flippantly. He sighed in a dramatic manner and flung his hands in the air. “We all die. Now come!”
* * *
The smell of the beeswax candles burning brightly in the altar room brought clarity to Dominus’ mind. He was alone with God and prayed for his guidance and deliverance in the face of evil, both apparent and hidden. He kept his eyes shut and whispered a litany of amends for past sins and for forgiveness of future ones.
The peace of his prayers was disrupted by a painful twitch in the back of his mind. It was not akin to when others of his order used their God-given talent, rather it was a wild sensation, clumsy and entirely dangerous: uncontrolled. He opened his eyes and from his kneeling position stared up at the huge crucifix and the candles arrayed before it.
Dominus crossed himself with three fingers, then rose. The clawing sensation in his mind fled and was replaced by a more mundane pain in his knees. He grunted and dismissed the discomfort. Pain was just another trial to be endured and overcome.
He heard slippers padding upon the ancient stone floor of San Lorenzo and the exasperated breaths of his student.
“Prelate Dominus!” Brother Moretto said as he burst into the altar room.
Moretto had not gone far from his chambers, granted to him by San Lorenzo’s bishop, but was already winded. Dominus vowed to work off some of the monastery-fat from his bones. Moretto wore a simple brown tunic and sweated profusely at the slightest provocation. He was young, fresh from schooling in Rome and eager to learn. He was also one of the last students to have the talent, according to his superiors. It was both troubling and comforting to know that the seminary of Rome would probably only be open another generation. God’s work was nearly done. Times were changing.
Moretto brought Dominus out of his brief reverie.
“I felt it. A surprisingly weak talent, but present,” Dominus said. He swept his frosty hair back and rolled his shoulders. “The letters I intercepted were right.”
Cosimo had slipped up and Rome agreed or it would not have sent Moretto to assist in the matter. While the spider of Florence might not be a warlock, his soul was already cosigned to hell. Someone just needed to hurry the body along.
Moretto licked his lips. “A heretic.” He clasped his hands together.
Dominus shook his head. “Perhaps, but the letters indicated a Moorish warlock was in the man’s employ. This makes things difficult.” He shrugged. “Somewhat.”
The confused look on Moretto’s face brought a smile to Dominus’ lips. The youth didn’t know the layer upon layer of bureaucracy the Holy Church was fond of. In truth, it had taken Dominus decades to fully wrap his mind around the intricacies of Church standings abroad. While most laymen of the Church learned their prayers and the rituals of the one true faith, including its hierarchy, Dominus had learned how to take his talent and use it for good. He had hardly known the names of a dozen saints when he left the seminary, but he had known over a dozen ways to kill a man with a look. Seeing Moretto, so much like himself all those years ago, was touching.
“The Inquisition is chartered to deal with heretics; men who have turned from Our Lord Jesus Christ,” Dominus explained, “But the Moor never embraced Him to begin with.”
“Then why are we here?” Moretto frowned. “I thought you wanted to stamp out sorcery.” He crossed his arms. “That is what we are supposed to do.”
Dominus exited the altar room and grasped Moretto by his arm. Together, they paced the shadowy halls of the centuries-old cathedral. The walls were plain, and cracked pillars supported a sagging roof. It was small as cathedrals went, nowhere near as towering as the gothic structures in Paris, Cologne, and Reims, but its age lent strength to it. The place ‘felt’ towering even if it was not.
“Remember our goal,” Dominus said, not unkindly. Moretto probably knew more about his talent than he did the rules of their order. That was Dominus’ job; he was to instruct his replacement just as he had been instructed in the field. Dimly, Dominus wondered whatever happened to Prelate Esparza? Surely he was dead by now.
The young man’s eyes squinted. He was silent for a moment then blurted, “Ah! Cosimo was baptized. If Cosimo is consorting with a wizard then we have every right to give him to a tribunal. In searching for the truth we have the right to deal with this Moor.”
Close enough. Dominus smiled. The baptism link would dissuade any other order from interfering should it come to legal wrangling. Dominus didn’t discount Cosimo having agents in the local church ready to use canonical law to shield their insidious master. Dominus nodded. “Good. You’ll be burning a heretic in no time if you stay so sharp.”
“Should we look for this Moor?” Moretto asked.
“No,” Dominus said, “Florence is too large for us to blindly search. We need local help.”
“Do you know this city well? I’ve hardly left Rome since I was a child,” Moretto confessed.
“Florence is not a place I ever expected to find myself. While Cosimo’s activities are known to the Church, few would move against him.” He sighed. “His tendrils reach even into Rome’s heart.” He glanced at Moretto. “If we do not stop him here, we may never be able to. I hear he will have Cardinals loyal to him above God.”
Moretto paled. “Impossible!”
Dominus wished it were so, but he had grown old and wise in his years prowling the lands in search of evil. He knew that the temporal temptations of Earth could, and often did, sway men’s hearts — even men of God.
“So, we need help.” Dominus chuckled. “Do not worry,” he said. If the men of Florence were corruptible, Dominus could use that to their advantage. Greed worked both ways.
* * *
When Filippo called the Medici home the center of a web, he was not exaggerating. They had crossed over the Arno River by means of an ancient bridge lined with shops that sold gold, silver, spices and the kind of exotics only the wealthy could afford. The structures of Florence remained a part of a complex maze, but the paths gradually knitted towards a central building. Mahir had to be within eyesight of the building to take note of just how many roads skirted its courtyard. From a distance, Mahir did not find the house in question much different than the rest. Again, if an army were to invade they might very well pass the place by. Only a local, one such as Filippo, knew the home’s importance.
Men and women in fine attire loitered about and Mahir fidgeted. Silk, jewels and gold were their trappings. He didn’t like dealing with the wealthy; he much more preferred the poor with their rags. They paid for his services with sensible things: not gold. But the poverty stricken also feared him and they were usually ignored if they started crying about sorcery to the Imans, or in Christian Europe’s case, the Inquisition.
The wealthy were different. On a whim, any well-dressed fop could try and kill Mahir and he would either end up dead, as sport, or later, under an executioner’s blade. He might as well be swimming in shark-filled waters.
Filippo navigated the elite of Florence’s society with ease. Despite his grubby appearance, people made way for him and some nodded, or offered polite greetings. The Master architect waved at those he knew, smiled and at times growled at Mahir to ‘hurry up’ audible enough for bystanders to hear, which suited him fine. The role was only natural and the last thing Mahir needed was someone to accuse him of being an Ottoman spy, or Moorish pirate. Mahir was entirely content being a humble, foreign servant.
They blazed a path through the busy courtyard to the infamous, if ubiquitous, house of Medici.
Florentine guards stood at attention by the front doors. The fact that government troops guarded the house was another clue as to the owner’s influence.
The soldiers nodded at Filippo and led the pair into the house of Medici without a word. They waited in a room filled with paintings, framed in gold, and velvet drapery. The sofas were comfortable. The stern glares of the guards were not and their presence prevented Mahir from asking his companion any questions.
A servant, who openly carried a dagger on his belt, entered the room and pointed at Mahir. “Cosimo will see the Moor.” He was a thin man, with waxen skin and a rich, burgundy tunic. His eyes moved with the alertness of a predator.
“Ah, excellent,” Filippo said. He rose from a plush sofa and brushed his dirty hands across his equally dusty tunic.
The servant frowned deeply and crossed his arms. “No,” the servant said, “just the Moor.”
Filippo bit his lower lip. “I see, but — ”
The servant didn’t wait for Filippo’s response and walked away.
Filippo blinked and grabbed Mahir by the shoulders. “This means everything to me,” he whispered, “My life has been in the shadow of Ghiberti all these years. Please, help me put him in the shadow of my dome.”
Mahir glanced at the wooden-faced guards still in the room. He stepped away and bowed low to Filippo. “I shall do my utmost, oh great architect.” He turned and followed the servant through the doorway.
The streets of Florence and the Medici home were similar in their meandering pathways. Mahir was lost after following the armed servant up and down stairs and through numerous, identical hallways. More unsettling was the fact that Mahir was positive that some of the decorations on the wall were duplicated, that or the servant was backtracking and purposefully disorientating Mahir. Eventually, the servant opened a door in one of the stone halls and halted.
“Enter,” the servant said. “Be respectful,” he added a moment later and his eyes hardened.
“Of course,” Mahir said. He touched his hand to his head and bowed several times, eager to display himself as the people of Florence expected him to be — that of a humble man. When he entered the room the servant shut the door.
Within it was dark. Mahir’s eyes strained to make out details, but the windows were draped in heavy fabric and parted so just a sliver of sunlight could penetrate and give only the faintest sense of dimension to the room. He barely made out a long table lined with chairs.
Was that a figure at the head of the table? He couldn’t be sure and he was not eager to enter the room any further. Grasping his robes in a reflexive gesture, Mahir said tentatively, “Master Medici?” What did one call the infamous Spider of Florence, a man famous for ruling through bribery, corruption and the plentiful use of assassins? In Tunis he was known as The Watcher and his agents Mahir diligently avoided.
“Do you have the talent?” a voice that was gravelly and measured asked from the far end of the room.
There was a figure! Mahir could see the man move, albeit slightly, from his seated position.
“Did you and your little band at the sewing guild amount to more than parlor tricks?” the voice asked with a condescending chuckle.
Mahir placed his hands together and lowered his head. He wasn’t about to answer anything so easily, nor rise to defend the honor of his dead school. “I have come at the request of the Master arch — ”
“I know why you are here,” the voice in the darkness snapped. “I had a part to play in that. Now then, your talent. Can you feel when another uses their talent? Most of your type can.”
That was information only those familiar with the art would know. Mahir took a step forward expecting to feel the mystical energy of another with the talent. There was nothing. Perhaps Cosimo was weak, like Filippo Brunelleschi and only extremely close contact would alert Mahir to his talent. Perhaps, he hadn’t revealed his abilities yet. Most cloaked their talent by simply not using it, or like Mahir by storing it in objects such as vials, chalk and even weaponry.
Despite not sensing anything mystical about the man, everything about him radiated power. There was nothing weak at all about the voice in the darkness.
“Can you weave the mystic lines?” the man asked. “Can you draw the glyphs and numbers and make miracles? Can you talk to the ether-things? Can you — ”
It was Mahir’s turn to interrupt. “How?” was all he could manage to ask. The questions pouring steadily from, who he assumed to be, Cosimo Medici, were too specific for anyone without the talent to know. Yet he felt nothing from his presence. Mahir inched closer. Still nothing.
The figure in the dark shifted. “It is my place to know. Knowing is what I do, Mahir of Tunis. I watch.” He used the word slowly. He apparently knew of his own reputation in Tunis.
Mahir scuttled back. “Yes, of course, Master Medici.” He licked his lips and decided either Cosimo was the most informed mundane man in the world, hiding his talent, or both. He suspected the latter.
The figure stood and walked around the table. “The problem with secrets is that they do not remain so. Do you think the Master architect Brunelleschi is the only one to break confidence? Do you imagine that the Inquisitors with the talent never reveal themselves? Do you believe that there could be a power in the world that will remain hidden for all time?”
“No,” Mahir confessed. If that were the case, witch-burnings wouldn’t have been so plentiful and the old covens wouldn’t have been scattered to the farthest corners of the world in the preceding decades. The little secret schools would have masters and apprentices as they did in the old days, not just bumbling amateurs using coded letters to try and learn their talent from one another in the manner of the blind leading the blind before they, like his school, gave up. Cosimo knew things he shouldn’t long before Filippo had told him. The thought wasn’t comforting in the least.
“Now that that is settled. What can you do?” Cosimo whispered.
The figure came closer. Mahir could make out a pale face, a thin nose and flowing garments and still not an inkling of magic about him. He was surprised to find the man appeared elderly.
Mahir cleared his throat. “I can sense others when they use their talent, like you guessed. But I cannot sense you,” he added. “I can bring the winds and fire. I can call upon things from beyond and pass through things that are solid, with the right drawings in chalk.” Mahir gave a small shrug. “A few other powers are at my disposal, but you know the most of it.”
“Lead into gold?” the old man inquired. His pale brow rose.
“No,” Mahir admitted. “Filippo talks too much.”
Cosimo’s shoulders slumped. “True.” The man stroked his smooth jaw with a frail hand. “No matter, I don’t need gold right now. I need a warrior.”
“Pardon, Master Cosimo?” Mahir was still unsure what to call the man.
“Cosimo will do,” he answered with a pleasant smile, though his eyes didn’t have any warmth to them. They were black. “I have an enemy that seeks to undo me. An enemy who has the talent you and yours have so jealously guarded. This enemy has come close to unraveling all my works and this simply will not do. Every attempt to handle him through traditional methods has failed. Even now he compiles evidence against me for crimes that are so dreadful I dare not mention them.”
Cosimo glided closer and peered at Mahir. “Time is running out. And so I offer this: Stop this man and I shall reward you. Your friend will get to work on the Great Distraction of Florence and all will be well.”
“I am an alchemist, not an assassin.” Mahir stepped back from Cosimo and rubbed his hands across his own robes. Spilling blood was not to his liking, though he had done it as recently as his flight from Tunis. Mahir was a problem solver, more used to handling curses and the concerns of peasantry than dealing with other men with the talent. He also had a dire sense as to who Cosimo’s enemy was, and that did not bode well in the slightest.
“I am not asking you to be an assassin,” Cosimo said. “I only am asking that you do your best to survive. If you do then we all benefit. So, I’d recommend being a warrior.”
A chill raced down Mahir’s spine. He stepped back farther, eager to put more distance between himself and Cosimo. “I don’t understand, Cosimo. What do you mean survive?”
“You do not understand?” The old man smiled.
Mahir didn’t like how sharp some of his teeth were. Two of them in fact.
“I will explain,” Cosimos said as if talking to a child. “My foe is Inquisitor Dominus. And as we speak, he is getting news of a magical ally I have contracted. The old fool thinks he’s intercepted some of my letters. Regardless, Dominus believes you are my agent. Should he catch you, you would prove useful to him. Well,” Cosimo said with a smile, “so he thinks. In the event of your death, fake letters and a dead Moor is hardly likely to trouble me in my own city.”
An Inquisitor — just as he feared! Mahir reached into his robes and grasped one of the bottles he wore for self-defense. He could bathe the old wretch in flames with a flick of wrist.
“You madman!” Mahir hissed, “You’ve — ”
Cosimo waved a hand. “Save your anger for Inquisitor Dominus, Mahir of Tunis. Go, and do not try to leave the city. The guards have been instructed to let no Moor pass, just as Dominus has been instructed to seek out a Moor.” He laughed lightly. “You will find your skin and foreign dress slightly out-of-place in Florence. All the better so that you two find one another. Return victorious and you will see that I do have a generous side.”
“I could kill you. Painfully,” Mahir said and clutched the bottle in his robes tightly.
“I don’t doubt this. Care to use the talent now?” Cosimo tilted his head.
Mahir spat. He released the bottle. Any use of the talent could be felt by the Inquisitor if he were near and Mahir didn’t want to alert such a foe to his exact whereabouts. A foe that was fully trained by the Papacy in the mystical arts and probably knew more on his first day out of the seminary than Mahir would learn in a lifetime.
Mahir cursed Cosimo in his native tongue.
“I’ll take that as your grudging acceptance of the task at hand,” Cosimo answered back. “Go, you have little time.”
* * *
The tavern was perfect for Dominus’ needs. It was small and open to a courtyard, almost like a stable, but the place was well decorated and populated by bragging youth wearing silly hose and bright, unbecoming colors. They were clustered around tables, drinking wine and openly wearing thin blades at their sides. Dominus hid any outward signs of annoyance that might slip through the kindly expression he put forth.
“Prelate Dominus,” Moretto whispered, “they are gambling.”
As Dominus prepared to enter the tavern a few of the aristocrats looked over their shoulders at him. Whispers were had and a few openly sneered.
The owner, a man clad in a dirty apron and sporting an earring, emerged to bar Dominus’ path.
“Father, is it Sunday?”
“His name is — ” Moretto began, but Dominus cut him off with a wave of his hand.
“It is not Sunday,” Dominus said evenly. He looked past the owner and to the men who lounged in the shade offered by his establishment. “I am looking for men of good worth.”
“Preach elsewhere,” one of the youth said and his companions laughed and slapped him playfully on the shoulder.
“I would not preach to cowards,” Dominus replied and spread his hands out wide.
The tavern’s master paled and he mouthed to Dominus, ‘what are you doing?!’
The youth were on their feet and their bejeweled hands were clasped to the hilts of their rapiers. They swaggered from the comfort of the shade and the scent of wine to confront Dominus.
“Prelate, should I — ” Moretto began.
“No,” Dominus whispered. “Watch and learn.” He cleared his throat and sidestepped the aghast tavern owner. He eyed the youth and dipped his head.
“I am above the striking of a man of the cloth. My father would be disappointed,” the lead fop said. He released the hold on his rapier. “Get out of here and be thankful I am pious.” He put his hands together in a mock form of prayer.
“So be it,” Dominus replied. “Florence’s honor is stained and I find no good men, no brave men, to defend what has been sullied.” He clapped Moretto on the arm. “Come, they were wrong to direct me to this place. These men aren’t the duelists I thought they might be.”
He turned on a heel and refrained from smiling when a hand grasped him on the shoulder. If he so wished it, Dominus could turn the offending body part into a blazing torch. However, he faced the man who grasped at him. Dominus met the man’s gaze without blinking.
The young fellow’s cheeks flushed and his breath stunk of wine. “We are the duelists you seek. Florence’s best. What does a man of God need with men like us, eh? Surely you don’t want Christian blood to be shed?”
Dominus shook his head slowly, then said, “Not Christian blood. Such would be a sin.”
The gang chuckled, but Dominus pressed on. “My issue is with a Moor. He has come to this city and struts about spreading lies. I asked the guards to do something, but they quake in terror! They say the Moor is without equal in combat.” Dominus paced. “I searched Florence for someone to help purge this non-believer, but the poor-folk fear the law, the law will not act and now you . . .” he trailed off and sighed. “One would think that the pope’s personal blessing and a pouch of coin would be enough to bring courage to someone, anyone at all within Florence.”
Moretto gasped. “Prelate!”
He didn’t need Moretto interrupting his ruse, and a small lie could be prayed for and redeemed in good time — not letting Cosimo escape was worth a little damnation. “I know, I know,” he said with an over-emphasized shake of his head, “Florence is afraid. Bested by a Moor before steel is even drawn.”
The youth burst into angry shouts of denial. Each man beat his chest and they proclaimed their noble lineage, their many kills and all manner of accomplishments that normally Dominus would find repugnant. They rushed to Dominus and he had to hold his hands out to prevent from being swarmed. The smell of wine only increased as they swirled around him.
“A pouch of gold and a blessing from the pope!” The leader of the gang paused and his eyes narrowed. “Wait, which pope?”
Dominus inwardly sighed. Church politics, being what they were, had recently seen three men give themselves the title of pope. “The true pope,” Dominus said evenly. Which was Martin, but just in case the brats favored one of the other two, he left it vague.
“Oh, good,” the young man replied without ever revealing whom he thought should be wearing the big hat. He grinned and winked. “So if I hear you right, Father, you want this Moor dealt with and will give me and my friends the blessing of the pope and a pouch of gold?”
“You swear to that?”
Dominus raised a brow. He crossed his arms and glared at the crowd of armed, spoiled nobility. He did not let his gaze flinch and watched with satisfaction as the men cowed one by one.
The leader cleared his throat and bobbed his head, letting his bravado ease a little. “Sorry.” His smile returned quickly enough. “We’ll find this Moor in our city in no time. Where do we find you?”
“The Cathedral of San Lorenzo.” Dominus made the sign of the cross. “I pray to see you all there shortly. The one who completes the deed gets the blessing and the coin. I leave it to his Christian generosity how to divide the spoils amongst his valiant peers.” Dominus walked away from the men as they talked in excited tones and each promised to be the one to plunge their blade into the Moor’s heart.
Soon as they were out of earshot, Moretto let out a heavy breath. “Prelate! You, you — ” he stammered and his cheeks flushed as if he, and not the nobles, had been downing copious amounts of wine.
“Sinned,” Dominus provided. He cast a side-glance Moretto’s way. “And it pains me that I must do so. Hah! When I was your age I could be more straightforward. Find me a witch! And they’d hop to it. Now,” he shrugged. “Now, men do not heed us the way they used to. Part of it is our own fault.”
“Our fault?” Moretto asked agog.
“Yes,” Dominus replied. “Three popes? We have three!” He shook his head. “If we were better men such a thing would not happen. It is people like Cosimo that make it so. He and those of his ilk are like a disease, spreading silently through the body and slowly corrupting it.” He offered a small smile to his student. “If we take Cosimo down it could be a cure for a cancer gnawing away at the one true faith.”
“I suppose,” Moretto said, though with little feeling behind the words. “Do you think they’ll succeed? And if they do, what of it? How does the death of the Moor bring us closer to Cosimo unless we’re directly involved?”
“This morning, when we felt another use the talent it was weak. The Moor cannot be that skilled and when he dies, we will have his body and witnesses proclaiming him to be a warlock. Noble witnesses.”
Moretto blinked. “And with the letters you intercepted . . .” he trailed off.
Young Moretto was learning fast. Dominus said nothing as they made their way back to the ancient church of San Lorenzo.
* * *
Mahir left the shadow-laden chamber of Cosimo and followed the servant through the labyrinth of the house back to the opulent waiting room.
Filippo stood, wringing his hands together. “How did it go?”
Any pretense of being some lowly servant was abandoned. Mahir shook his fist in Filippo’s face. “How do you think it went? Do you think we shared some wine? Chatted about the weather? Talked about politics?”
The guards stiffened and one opened his mouth to object to Mahir’s rough treatment of his better, but the armed servant shot a warning glance and shook his head.
The Master architect lowered his head. “I am sorry, my friend. It wasn’t my idea. I didn’t want to send the letter.”
“You sent the letter to the Inquisitor?” Mahir shook his head and moved to Filippo’s side. Glancing at the guards, Mahir grasped Filippo’s hand and dragged him out of the Medici home.
“What? Inquisitor? No, the letter to the — ” Filippo pursed his lips. “Ah, Cosimo did not tell you my role in all this.”
A dreadful thought occurred to Mahir. “Filippo? Do not tell me it was you who alerted the Imams in Tunis!”
The man visibly paled and he sucked in a heavy breath. Releasing it, he said, “Mahir, I’m sorry. It was Cosimo’s idea to let them know about you. He said it was the only way to get you to come to Florence in a hurry without too much forethought. I just told him — ”
“Too much,” Mahir barked. “All so you can defeat Ghiberti! Your whole life, and now mine, is hinged around a grudge from years ago.” They stalked across the bridge and its adjacent luxury shops. A few people stared openly at Mahir as he dragged Filippo behind him. He didn’t care. “You cost me my home, Filippo, for a stupid dome.” Anger boiled within him and he fought to suppress it. It was no easy task.
“My dome will be the best the world has seen,” Filippo said in muted tones and picked up his pace to keep up with Mahir. “Now, what is all this about an Inquisitor?” Filippo asked and perked up as if he hadn’t quite heard Mahir correctly.
Mahir whirled to face his friend. “The one you and I must defeat so you can win your stupid contract and I can have the glory of being allowed to live. Come, we haven’t much time before the papal wizard goes looking for the only Moor in town.”
Filippo blanched. “So that is why Cosimo wanted you here? I thought it was just his fascination with the talent. Mahir, if I knew — ”
“If you knew,” Mahir retorted, “I think you still would have done whatever it takes to please that man.” Filippo’s dream project was becoming Mahir’s nightmare.
[To be continued . . . be sure to come back in July, when we publish the exciting conclusion!]
Richard Marsden was born in Canada and is currently a resident of Arizona. He has been fencing with the rapier for fifteen years, dabbles in economics and holds a Masters Degree in Land Warfare courtesy of AMU. His wife, AJ, lovingly encourages his eccentricities.
You can read more about Richard and his writing here: www.worksofrichardmarsden.com