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By Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
Warner BooksCopyright © 2002 Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
All right reserved.
Chapter OneINSPITE OF the cold wind, Gasparo Tucchio was sweating. He swung the ninth sack of gravel onto his broad shoulder and began the careful, dangerous walk down into the large pit that would be the foundation of the foreigner's new palazzo. He shifted the weight experimentally and swore.
"Ei! Gaspar', not so fast!" Lodovico da Roncale said as he, too, shouldered a load. "Careful, careful, do not slip," he said somewhat breathlessly as they made their way into the excavation.
"Damned foreigner," Gasparo muttered as he took careful, mincing steps down the steep incline. "'Dig it out to half again the height of a man,' he says. 'Fill it a hand's breadth with gravel,' he says. He will supply us with cement, he says. He will tell us how to mix it. Arrogant. Arrogant. He wants the gravel level, he wants the corner mountings dug down even farther. He must think he's some kind of old Roman."
Behind him Lodovico chuckled through his panting. "You're too stiff-rumped, Gaspar'. Even foreigners have good ideas once in a while."
Gasparo snorted. "I've been a builder all my life, and so was my father before me. He helped raise the Duomo of Santa Maria del Fiore. I've worked every day that I could since I grew a beard, and never, never have I worked on anything like this. Say what you want, Ragoczy is mad." To punctuate this opinion he swung the sack off his shoulder and onto the floor of the deep, broad pit. "Good, good," said Enrico, their supervisor, as the sacks were spilled out. "Another five or more sacks and there will be enough."
"Five?" Gasparo demanded. "It's too cold. It's late. Sundown comes soon. We can finish tomorrow."
Enrico smiled blandly. "If you carry one more, and Lodovico carries one more, and if Giuseppe and Carlo bring down their sacks now, and carry one more each, then there will be six sacks. It is not too difficult, Gasparo." Gasparo made no reply. He glared at the carefully dug hole and shook his head. "I don't understand it," he said to himself.
Giuseppe dropped his sack of gravel beside Gasparo's. "What do you not understand, you old fake?" His leather doublet was open to the waist, so that his rough-woven shirt hung loosely around him. "You hate work, that's all. It wouldn't matter if Laurenzo himself had ordered the work, you'd still complain."
The others laughed at this, nodding their agreement, which annoyed Gasparo. "Are you so eager to work for that foreigner, then? When have any of you been told how to make a building? It isn't right." He kicked tentatively at the gravel already spread over most of the bottom of the excavation.
"If he were here, I'd tell him what I think, that's all." An amused, beautifully modulated voice spoke from above. "And what would you say to me?"
The working men stopped, looked up. Gasparo shied a pebble across the gravel and said something under his breath.
At the rim of the pit stood Francesco Ragoczy da San Germano. His dark, fur-lined roundel over a black silk doublet and perfectly white camisa proclaimed him a stranger as much as his slight accent and the foreign Order around his neck on a silver chain that was studded with rubies. He wore heeled Russian boots on his small feet, embroidered black gloves, and a French chaperon on his unfashionably short dark hair. "Well? What is it?"
Gasparo glared. "I said," he lied, "that we might as well go home. It's going to rain."
"But not for some while yet. You need not fear to finish your work." He jumped lightly into the pit, landing easily on the unstable footing. The builders exchanged uneasy glances. None of them could have taken that drop without injury.
"You are doing well," Ragoczy was saying, walking across the gravel floor. "You should be ready to cement it." Enrico bowed ingratiatingly. "I hope that you are satisfied, Patron. We have worked to your orders."
"All of you?" Ragoczy asked, looking at Gasparo. "Be that as it may, I am satisfied. Yes. You have done well. I thank you."
"We are grateful, Patron." He waited, watching the foreigner stride around the graveled bed of the pit.
Ragoczy bent and picked up a handful of gravel. "Why? I thought my opinion meant little to you." He tossed one of the pebbles into the air and caught it, tossed it and caught it. Three of the builders stopped their work, eyeing Ragoczy with suspicion, but Gasparo strode up to the black-clad stranger. "Your opinion is worth nothing," he said belligerently. "You know nothing of buildings. I have been a builder all my life, and my father before me. I tell you that all these precious instructions of yours are useless and a waste of time." He waited for the blow or the dismissal.
None came. "Bravo," Ragoczy said softly, smiling. "You may very well be right, amico mio. But nonetheless, you will do it my way."
Gasparo's jaw moved forward and he put his hands on his hips. "Yes? Why will we continue with this foolishness?" "Because, carino, I am paying you. So long as I give you the money you earn, you will build whatever I tell you to, in whatever manner I tell you. Otherwise you may find your money elsewhere." He paused, still smiling. Although he was of slightly less than average height, something about him-it may have been the smile, or the dark clothes, or his disquieting air of command-dominated the builders in the pit. "If I were to tell you to build a Moorish citadel or a Chinese fortress, if you wanted to be paid, you would do it." Even Enrico and Lodovico laughed at this, and Gasparo nodded his encouragement. "If you think, stranger, that you have any power here in Fiorenza ..."
"I think," Ragoczy said wearily, "that money speaks a universal tongue. I think that even in Fiorenza you members of your Arte understand that." He threw the gravel in his hand away, listening as the stones spattered where they hit. Again the builders exchanged looks and Lodovico nodded knowingly to himself.
"The way you build now in Fiorenza, this palazzo will stand ... what?-perhaps three centuries." Ragoczy's face was desolate. "But what is that? Three centuries, four, five, are nothing. I want my palazzo to stand for a thousand years." He laughed ruefully. "Vain hope. But make the attempt, good builders. Humor me and build according to my outrageous instructions."
"A thousand years?" Gasparo was dumbfounded. He stared at the stranger, and thought that perhaps Ragoczy was mad. "What use will this be to you in a thousand years? Or in a hundred?"
"It is a home," Ragoczy answered simply. Lodovico snickered and winked broadly at Giuseppe. "But the Patron has neither chick nor child. He has not even a wife. What heirs of his will live here in a thousand years? Or in a hundred?"
"Heirs?" It was as if a door had closed in Ragoczy. He stopped moving and his dark eyes narrowed, their penetrating gaze suddenly alarming. "Those of my blood will come after me, never fear. You have my Word on that." There was silence in the foundation excavation and the cold wind whipped around them, but the chill the builders felt came more from the foreigner in black than from the air. Gasparo beetled his brow as his indignation swelled. "We do not make funerary monuments, Eccellenza. If that is what you wish, talk to stonecutters, not to us." There was a new light in Ragoczy's eyes as he looked at the thick-bodied builder. "Does it matter so much to you, amico?"
"I am a builder," Gasparo announced as he clapped one huge hand to his chest. "I make houses for the living, not the dead."
Behind Gasparo the other builders nodded nervously, and Carlo took courage, giving Gasparo an approving gesture. "Admirable," Ragoczy said dryly.
"Mock me if you wish, Patron, it does not change the matter. You say you want us to build a house that will stand a thousand years. Va bene. You instruct us in our work. I do not like it, but you are the Patron. But even you cannot pay enough for me to put up a palazzo that is a shell only." He set his hands on his hips again and leaned forward. "You may mock me, but you will not mock my building!"
Ragoczy nodded. "What integrity!" There was neither bitterness nor condemnation in the words. "I promise you that I have no wish for any empty building. Why would I pay for so much special labor if I did not want to live here? Why else would I care how you lay the foundations? ... Well?" Gasparo shrugged. "As you say, we are being paid to build a palazzo for you. If you want it built with lacquered straw, what is it to me?" He folded his heavy arms over his chest.
Ragoczy nodded. "Precisely. And what can I be but flattered and grateful that you care so much for my home? You must let me thank you for your courtesy." He strode over to Gasparo, his arms open. "Come, will you not touch cheeks with me?"
Gasparo Tucchio was stunned. Never in his life had a gentleman offered him this familiarity. He flushed, rubbed his gritty hands on his workman's breeches. "Patron, I ..." Ragoczy embraced the builder heartily, and Gasparo realized what great strength was contained in that elegant, compact body. Very awkwardly he returned the hug, aware of the heavy stubble of his day-old beard on the smooth cheek of the foreigner.
The other builders watched, one or two of them acutely embarrassed. Though it was true Fiorenza was a Repubblica, this went far beyond the social equality they all took pride in. This was unheard of. Enrico soothed his wounded dignity-for as the supervisor, surely he was more entitled to this unbecoming display-by saying softly to Giuseppe, "Foreign manners. Outrageous. The Patron cannot know what he is doing."
Giuseppe nodded vigorously. "It is well enough for us of the Arte to touch cheeks, but not with one of his station." But for Gasparo, at that moment if the foreigner in black with the unfathomable eyes had asked him to dig foundations from Fiorenza to Roma, he would have done it without question. There was no mockery in that handsome face, no insult to his conduct.
"Eccellenza ..." he began, then faltered. "Amico, I have been a prince, and I have been a beggar. I do not scorn you because you work with your hands. If you did not build, then all of Fiorenza would still live in tents, as it did when Romans first built their camp here next to the old Etruscan town."
Gasparo nodded eagerly. "As you say, Patron." "Work well, then, my builders. You will all have proof of my gratitude." He managed to include them all in the sweep of his arm. Then he turned, ran two or three steps, and vaulted upward toward the edge of the pit, swung on his arms, landed cleanly but for a clod dislodged by the heel of one boot.
Lodovico made a low whistle, and Enrico blinked. Carlo and Giuseppe busied themselves with emptying their sacks. Only Gasparo smiled, and he smiled hugely.
From above them Ragoczy called down, "I am going to add to your woes, I am afraid." He gestured to someone or something out of sight. In a moment another man stood beside him. "This is Joacim Branco. He will be my lieutenant during the building. You are to follow his instructions to the very limit. I will be satisfied with nothing less than the best of what you are capable. I know your skill to be great. I know you will succeed."
The newcomer beside Ragoczy was amazingly tall, even by Fiorenzan standards. He had long, lean hands, a narrow body and a face like the spine of a book. He wore a rather old-fashioned houppelande in the Burgundian fashion and his unconfined hair drifted around his face like cobwebs. "Good afternoon, builders," he said in a voice so solemn that it tolled like the bell of San Marco.
"Another foreign alchemist," Lodovico said to Gasparo, just loud enough to be certain Joacim Branco could hear. "That is correct," Ragoczy agreed, and smiled. "His skill is formidable. You will do well to obey him implicitly." Suddenly he laughed. "Come, you need not worry that he will disgrace you with ridiculous demands. Magister Branco is a reasonable man, much more reasonable than I am, I promise you."
Magister Joacim Branco achieved a sour smile. He bowed very slightly, very stiffly.
Enrico rolled his eyes heavenward and silently asked Santa Chiara what he had ever done to deserve this. "Welcome, Magister," he managed to say.
Ragoczy murmured something to the tall Portuguese at his side; then he addressed the men in the pit one last time. "There is special earth to be laid with the foundation. That you will do tomorrow. Today it is enough that you make the gravel even in preparation."
This time Gasparo's voice had real distress in it. "But, Patron, if it rains, we cannot lay a foundation. It will be ruined. It will not bear the weight of the building. It will crack ..."
"I give you my word that there will be no rain tonight, or tomorrow, or tomorrow night. There will be enough time for you to set the foundation and to install the four corner pieces. After that, it will not matter if it rains; the foundation will be solid and you may make yourselves a shelter with the cornerpieces." With an expansive gesture Ragoczy turned away, leaving the Magister Joacim Branco alone at the edge of the excavation.
Giuseppe finished spreading the gravel from his sack and looked up. "Jesù, Maria," he whispered, and had to stop himself from making the Sign of the Cross.
Joacim Branco had come to the very edge of the pit, and in the cold wind the long sleeves of his houppelande flapped like tattered wings. He stood very still. It was Enrico who broke the silence. "Magister? Would you care to come down?"
To the relief of the builders the alchemist did not jump into the pit, but made his way down the causeway. As he came nearer it was seen that he held several containers in his hands. He put these down on the gravel and turned to Enrico. "At the fence there are two carts. I will need them." "How heavy are they?" Lodovico asked, not willing to move.
"They are well-laden. It will take a man apiece to pull them." He turned back to his containers, having no more interest in the builders.
Enrico shrugged fatalistically and pointed to Giuseppe. "You and Carlo bring down the carts. Gaspar' and Lodovico can carry down the last of the gravel."
With a sigh Gasparo trudged back up the slope and reluctantly shouldered another sack of gravel. He thought for a moment about the Patron, about his social solecism, and he grinned.
He was still grinning later as he sat with Lodovico drinking a last cup of hot spiced wine. The night had turned cold, providing an excuse for a larger measure of drink. "But eggs, Gaspar', hen's eggs!" Lodovico was saying for the third time.
"If it is what the Patron wants, we'll put eggs in the mortar. Shells and all." He raised his wooden cup. "To Francesco Ragoczy da San Germano, generous madman that he is."
Excerpted from The Palace by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro Copyright © 2002 by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro . Excerpted by permission.
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