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Footsteps in the dark.
That's all Ridolfo di Fioravanti heard at first, the tramp of booted feet somewhere in the distance, but it was enough. Though he couldn't see them yet, he knew who was marching down the long, dark tunnels toward him and the rest of the men working on the project. He knew that when they were at last revealed in the light of the oil lamps there would be no doubt of their intentions.
He had begun to suspect what was being prepared for them when the guards changed. For weeks the work crews had been accompanied by a squad of soldiers, there, he suspected, to prevent the workers from making off with the tools more than anything else. But within the past week the soldiers had been replaced by men wearing the black uniform and dog's head insignia of the Oprichniki, the czar's secret police. This was not a good sign. The Oprichniki were nothing more than sadistic thugs in uniform, brought into being to help the czar quell internal resistance and turned loose to terrorize and torture anyone he saw as a threat.
Ridolfo should have seen it coming. When Czar Ivan had first summoned him to his palace and told him what he wanted to do, Ridolfo had been too caught up in the technicalities of the project to see the danger. He'd let his excitement overcome his good sense and now it seemed he was going to pay for that oversight.
But not before he saw to his family's welfare.
He crossed the room to where his nephew, Giuseppe, was helping some of the other workers pile debris from an earlier excavation into a cart. Grabbing the boy by the arm, Ridolfo led him off to one side.
"I need you to take a message to your father for me," he told the boy.
"But I'll miss the end of the shift!"
The conditions they were working in were arduous, at best, and for a moment Ridolfo didn't understand why the boy would want to be slaving down here when he could be out in the sunlight above. But then the meaning of the boy's statement filtered past Ridolfo's fear enough to make sense. The workers were paid at the end of each work period. If Giuseppe left now, he'd forfeit the effort he'd put in up to this point.
If he doesn't leave now, he'll be dead.
"I will collect your wages myself," Ridolfo told him with a smile on his face. "Have no fear."
Ridolfo was the chief foreman and designer of the project, which made the lie seem convincing. Thankfully the boy took it at face value.
Ridolfo reached inside his shirt and removed the slim leather journal he kept secreted there. He passed it to Giuseppe.
"Take this to your father and tell him the crows are flying. Understand? The crows are flying."
Giuseppe frowned but nodded, anyway. "The crows are flying. Yes, sir."
"Good boy!" Ridolfo kept the smile on his face, but inside he wanted to scream. The sound of booted feet was much closer now and they were all but out of time. If the czar had sent his uniformed lapdogs down the emergency exit, they were already too late.
Only one way to find out..
"Come," he said with fake cheer, pulling his nephew into the rear section of the vault to where the narrow mouth of the emergency exit was half-hidden in the shadows. He stuck his head inside the tunnel and listened for as long as he dared, but didn't hear anything. Perhaps the way was still open.
He picked up the emergency lantern that always stood inside the entrance of the tunnel and lit it, illuminating the passageway before him. "This will take you directly to the surface," he said to the boy. "Better yet, by going this way you won't have to deal with the guards at the main entrance."
That last brought a smile to Giuseppe's face; he hated the dimwitted brutes that passed as guards around here. He took the lantern Ridolfo passed to him and, without a backward glance, scampered up the tunnel with the journal clutched in his other hand.
Ridolfo watched until the lantern's light disappeared around a bend and then he quickly moved away from the opening, not wanting to give those who were coming any indication that the passageway was in use. He'd worked out the plan with his brother several days ago when he'd first begun to suspect the end that Czar Ivan had in mind for those working on the project. The message was innocuous enough that it wouldn't raise concerns if the boy was caught and forced to disclose it, but Ridolfo's brother would understand what it meant. As any peasant knew, the only time the crows gathered was when they had something to feast upon.
Ridolfo stepped back into the main vault at the same time a squad of Oprichniki soldiers marched into the room, their weapons in hand, pointed toward the workers. The sight infuriated Ridolfohow dare they threaten his men? But the angry shout that rose in his throat was instantly stifled when the tall, dark form of Ivan Vasilyevich IV, Grand Prince of Moscow and Czar of the Russian Empire, also known as Ivan the Terrible, stepped from behind the squad.
Ridolfo sank to one knee and his men followed suit, none of them daring to look in the czar's direction. Ivan had been known to fly into a rage at even an unintended slight.
Today, however, he seemed to be in a jovial mood.
"Get up!" came his deep, booming voice. "Get up! The floor is no place for my chief architect."
Ridolfo did as he was told, still mindful that the Oprichniki had not relaxed their watchfulness.
Ivan was tall, with wide shoulders and a broad chest, made all the more intimidating by his seeming boundless energy. He would never be called handsome, for his small eyes and hooked nose gave him a sinister expression even when he was smiling, as he was now.
"The work goes well, no?" he asked, his voice made louder by the way it echoed off the close stone walls.
Ridolfo nodded. "It does, indeed, Your Highness," he replied, surprised at his steadiness. He knew what was coming, could see it in the gleam in the czar's eyes, but he'd be damned if he let his fear overwhelm him. He would play his part to the very end. Every second he kept the czar occupied here was another that his family could use to make their escape. "A few more days and we should be complete."
The czar's joviality, of course, was a front. Upon hearing the answer to his question, it quickly vanished, to be replaced by a deep frown. "Days?" The czar glanced with a heavy scowl at Nikolaevich, one of the men in the work crew, who swiftly turned his face away.
You bastard! Ridolfo thought at the revelation of the traitor, but he was careful to keep his expression neutral. He'd known the czar had spies in his work crew, but he'd never even suspected the big Muscovite.
Nothing to be done about it now.
"It is nothing vital," he said easily, trying to keep Ivan's legendary temper from erupting upon them all. "Cosmetic issues only."
The minute he said it, Ridolfo realized it was the wrong statement to make. The vault had not been designed for the public, but to protect Ivan's most precious treasure. A few rough spots here and there were nothing compared to keeping the secret of the vault's existence.
The self-satisfied smirk that flashed across the czar's face, there and gone again so quickly Ridolfo might have missed it if he wasn't looking intently, told the architect it was too late to try to fix the mistake.
He'd just killed his only opportunity to delay the inevitable. Ridolfo would not be leaving this chamber alive.
That realization brought with it a strange sense of relief. There was no longer any need to worry about what was to happen; it was too late for that. With his death only moments away, he felt a surge of defiance, the likes of which he'd never felt before. As the other men in the work crew watched in surprise, Ridolfo slowly climbed to his feet, staring at the czar, letting the contempt he felt show plainly on his face.
Unfortunately, that contempt, righteous or not, was wasted on a murderous thug like Ivan the Terrible. The czar stepped back behind the circle of soldiers he'd brought with him and said clearly enough for everyone to hear, "Get rid of them, Captain. Every last one of them."
Ridolfo and his men were horribly outnumbered, but that didn't stop him and several of the other more perceptive workers from snatching up shovels and pickaxes and charging the hated Oprichniki with murder in their hearts.
The end result was all but preordained. Ridolfo managed to deliver a couple of blows with the pickax before the soldier in front of him parried a strike and thrust a thick-bladed cavalry sabre through Ridolfo's chest.
As the Italian architect lay bleeding to death on the cold stone tile his men had laid only days before, his last thought was of his brother's son and the clues buried in the pages of the journal the boy carried to the sunlight high above.