1636 The Flight Of The Nightingale – Snippet 10

Chapter 7

Roberto Del Migliore strode toward the back of the palace. “You,” he called out to a servant crossing the hallway before him, “Ernani. Come here.”

“Yes, sir,” the servant said, pivoting in the intersection of the corridors and approaching the palace-major, obviously wondering what he might have done.

“I need Alessandro Nerinni and Cesare Falconieri to meet me at the quarters of Maestra Caccini immediately. And that means now, not a quarter-hour later.” The palace major twisted a simple ring off a finger and handed it to the servant. “Take this. They’ll recognize it and won’t argue with you. Alessandro should be in our offices, and Cesare will either be in the armory or the stables. Find them, and then meet me at the Maestra’s quarters. If you see Paolo Gagliardi, tell him as well. And don’t be the last one to arrive.”

The servant swallowed, and took off at a near run. Roberto quirked one corner of his mouth up in amusement, then continued on his way.

No surprise, Roberto was first to arrive at the Maestra’s rooms. He tried the door’s latch. It moved easily, and he could feel it disengaging, but when he pushed on the door, it moved very little. He tripped the latch again, placing one hand on the door about shoulder level and leaning into it. The door seemed to move more above his hand than below it. So Piero’s observation about a bar on the door was probably correct.

“Consulting Detective, indeed,” Roberto muttered. “I believe we can do this without the aid of the up-timers.”

Roberto stood back and crossed his arms. He took a deep sniff of the air. Nothing out of the ordinary, other than a hint of someone’s chamberpot being in need of a cleaning. Of course, that didn’t signify anything. The servants’ quarters on some of the back hallways didn’t get as much cleaning sometimes as they needed.

It did concern Roberto, though, that the Maestra had been out of sight for perhaps two or three days, and the door was barred. It wouldn’t be the first time someone died in their sleep and wasn’t found for a few days. He made a wry grin to himself. He could face the prospect of battle with its attendant bloody casualties with a very calm spirit…almost placid, even. But let him be faced with perhaps finding the two or three day old corpse of a woman who died quietly in bed, and his stomach tied itself in knots. God had a sense of humor, there was no doubt.

The sound of approaching footsteps registered. More than one set of feet, it sounded like…two pairs, at least, maybe more. Roberto looked around as two men rounded the corner of the corridor and headed toward him. Alessandro and Paolo — good — his assistant as palace-major and his long-time attendant both on the battlefields and off.

“What happens, Roberto?” Alessandro said. “Ernani didn’t say.” As an ex-condottiere, Roberto allowed a certain amount of informality from his staff.

“That’s because he didn’t know to say,” Roberto said. “At the moment, all I know is Maestra Francesca Caccini has missed an appointment with the dowager duchess, which has Her Grace unhappy. It appears that she may not have been seen for some time, and the door to her room is barred.”

“Barred?” Paolo asked in his gravelly tones. “Not locked?”

“See for yourself,” Roberto said. “No lock on the door.”

Paolo’s mouth twisted as he examined the door. “Right. No lock. Solid frame. Solid door. Not so good, then. She might be dead in there and we wouldn’t know it.”

Dio forfend,” Alessandro said, crossing himself. “She’s not that old, I don’t think.”

“A bit over fifty,” Roberto said after a moment’s thought. “I remember asking when she came back to the palace and resumed her place at court after her husband’s death and the passing of the plague years.”

“She doesn’t look it,” Paolo said. “I would have called her no more than late thirties, myself.”

“She has children,” Alessandro said. “A daughter by her first marriage, and a son by her second.”

“Twice-married?” Roberto asked. That bit of information surprised him. “I didn’t know that.”

“First to another musician in the court; second to a Luccan nobleman,” Alessandro said. “Twice a bride, twice a mother, twice a widow. After her second husband died in the recent round of the plague, she eventually came back to the court here. His family was not very accepting, apparently.”

“Ah,” Roberto said with a nod. “He married outside the normal ranks, and some of them resented it?”

Alessandro shrugged. “That’s probably the root of it. But a lot of people don’t need much excuse to be nasty, especially to anyone not of their social rank.”

Paolo snorted. “Right. Me and the capitano,” he nodded at Roberto, “seen more than our fair share of that over the years.”

Roberto grimaced slightly at the reference to their mercenary days, but Paolo had been his sergeant, attendant, and companion for most of those years, and the notion of Roberto being his captain was so ingrained in him that it couldn’t be removed. Paolo knew his place in the order of things

More steps were sounding, and the three of them looked to the corner in time to see the servant Ernani scurry around it, followed by Cesare Falconieri a moment later. Roberto gave a small smile as he saw Ernani holding out the ring and hurrying it to place it in his hand. And he had made an obvious effort to not be the last one to arrive, in accordance with the palace-major’s instruction. Whether he did so out of fear of the consequences if he did not — or more likely, out of certain knowledge of the consequences — made no difference to Roberto. Obedience was the desired result; obedience was what he received. That was as it should be, he thought.

Falconieri, the head of the palace guards, joined them as Roberto accepted the ring from Ernani. The servant started to turn away, only to freeze at a gesture from the palace-major. “Sorry,” Falconieri said. “I was in the stables checking the new horses. They’ll do for now, but we need to find some better ones.”

Roberto grimaced, and Paolo chuckled. “Every horse that isn’t locked up is being sent north,” the attendant said. “Between rebuilding regiments that have been hammered to dust in the Swede’s campaigns, the fighting that happened in Poland and Bavaria, and now the Turkish onslaught, all of them — the Swede, the Austrians, and the Americans — are paying top prices in florins, ducats, guilders, or dollars for horseflesh right now. You’d best post extra guards over the stables to make sure ours don’t wander off.”

“Go teach your grandmama to spin, Gagliardi,” the guard leader said with a rude gesture. That brought a round of chuckles from all the men.

“So why are we here, Roberto,” Falconieri asked.

“Maestra Francesca Caccini’s quarters,” the palace-major said, nodding at the door. “She hasn’t been seen in a few days. The door is barred. And no one responded when His Excellency’s page Piero came banging on the door a little while ago.

Awareness dawned on all the men’s faces at the same time. “You think she may…” Alessandro began.

“It is a possibility. Regardless of what we find when we enter, since we will likely be reporting to the dowager duchess, I want unimpeachable witnesses.” Roberto turned to Paolo. “Can you open the door?”

Paolo walked over and leaned one hand against the door, feeling its weight against the bar. He bent down and examined the door and doorframe in the area where the bar crossed behind them.

“Probably,” the attendant said, straightening again, “but it might mess up the door.” He looked up and down the hallway. “Let’s try something else, first. There’s a window in this room, right?” Alessandro nodded. Paolo grabbed Ernani by the arm. “You, come with me.”