1636 The Flight Of The Nightingale – Snippet 16

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.”