While I thought that I was learning how to live,
I have been learning how to die.
- Leonardo da Vinci
Torches gleamed and flickered high on the towers of the Palazzo Vecchio and the Bargello, and just a few lanterns shimmered in the cathedral square a little way to the north. Some also illuminated the quays along the banks of the River Arno, where, late as it was for a city where most people retired indoors with the coming of night, a few sailors and stevedores could be seen through the gloom. Some of the sailors, still attending to their ships and boats, hastened to make final repairs to rigging and to coil rope neatly on the dark, scrubbed decks, while the stevedores hurried to haul or carry cargo to the safety of the nearby warehouses.
Lights also glimmered in the winehouses and the brothels, but very few people walked the streets. It had been seven years since the then twenty-year-old Lorenzo de’ Medici had been elected to the leadership of the city, bringing with him at least a sense of order and calm to the intense rivalry between the leading international banking and merchant families who had made Florence one of the wealthiest cities in the world. Despite this, the city had never ceased to simmer, and occasionally boil over, as each faction strove for control, some of them shifting alliances, some remaining permanent and implacable enemies.
Florence, in the Year of Our Lord 1476, even on a jasmine-sweet evening in spring, when you could almost forget the stench from the Arno if the wind was in the right direction, wasn’t the safest place to be out in the open, after the sun had gone down.
The moon had risen in a now-cobalt sky, lording it over a host of attendant stars. Its light fell on the open square where the Ponte Vecchio, its crowded shops dark and silent now, joined the north bank of the river. Its light also found out a figure clad in black, standing on the roof of the church of Santo Stefano al Ponte. A young man, only seventeen years old, but tall and proud. Surveying the neighbourhood below keenly, he put a hand to his lips and whistled, a low but penetrating sound. In response, as he watched, first one, then three, then a dozen, and at last twenty men, young like himself, most clad in black, some with blood-red, green or azure cowls or hats, all with swords and daggers at their belts, emerged from dark streets and archways into the square. The gang of dangerous-looking youths fanned out, a cocky assuredness in their movements.
The young man looked down at the eager faces, pale in the moonlight, gazing up at him. He raised his fist above his head in a defiant salute.
‘We stand together!’ he cried, as they too raised their fists, some drawing their weapons and brandishing them, and cheered: ‘Together!’
The young man quickly climbed, catlike, down the unfinished façade from the roof to the church’s portico, and from it leapt, cloak flying, to land in a crouch, safely in their midst. They gathered round, expectantly.
‘Silence, my friends!’ He held up a hand to arrest a last, lone shout. He smiled grimly. ‘Do you know why I called you, my closest allies, here tonight? To ask your aid. For too long I have been silent while our enemy, you know who I mean, Vieri de’ Pazzi, has gone about this town slandering my family, dragging our name in the mud, and trying in his pathetic way to demean us. Normally I would not stoop to kicking such a mangy cur, but -‘
He was interrupted as a large, jagged rock, hurled from the direction of the bridge, landed at his feet.
‘Enough of your nonsense, grullo,’ a voice called.
The young man turned as one with his group in the direction of the voice. Already he knew who it belonged to. Crossing the bridge from the south side another gang of young men was approaching. Its leader swaggered at its head, a red cloak, held by a clasp bearing a device of golden dolphins and crosses on a blue ground, over his dark velvet suit, his hand on the pommel of his sword. He was a passably handsome man, his looks marred by a cruel mouth and a weak chin, and though he was a little fat, there was no doubting the power in his arms and legs.
‘Buona sera, Vieri,’ the young man said evenly. ‘We were just talking about you.’ And he bowed with exaggerated courtesy, while assuming a look of surprise. ‘But you must forgive me. We were not expecting you personally. I thought the Pazzi always hired others to do their dirty work.’
Vieri, coming close, drew himself up as he and his troop came to a halt a few yards away. ‘Ezio Auditore! You pampered little whelp! I’d say it was rather your family of penpushers and accountants that goes running to the guards whenever there’s the faintest sign of trouble. Codardo!‘ He gripped the hilt of his sword. ‘Afraid to handle things yourself, I’d say.’
‘Well, what can I say, Vieri, ciccione. Last time I saw her, your sister Viola seemed quite satisfied with the handling I gave her.’ Ezio Auditore gave his enemy a broad grin, content to hear his companions snigger and cheer behind him.
But he knew he’d gone too far. Vieri had already turned purple with rage. ‘That’s quite enough from you, Ezio, you little prick! Let’s see if you fight as well as you gabble!’ He turned his head back to his men, raising his sword. ‘Kill the bastards!’ he bellowed.
At once another rock whirled through the air, but this time it wasn’t thrown as a challenge. It caught Ezio a glancing blow on the forehead, breaking the skin and drawing blood. Ezio staggered back momentarily, as a hail of rocks flew from the hands of Vieri’s followers. His own men barely had time to rally before the Pazzi gang was upon them, rushing over the bridge to Ezio and his men. All at once, the fighting was so close and so fast that there was hardly time at first to draw swords or even daggers, so the two gangs just went at each other with their fists.
The battle was hard and grim – brutal kicks and punches connected with the sickening sound of crunching bone. For a while it could have gone either way, then Ezio, his vision slightly impaired by the flow of blood from his forehead, saw two of his best men stumble and go down, to be trampled on by Pazzi thugs. Vieri laughed, and, close to Ezio, swung another blow at his head, his hand grasping a heavy stone. Ezio dropped to his haunches and the blow went wide, but it had been too close for comfort, and now the Auditore faction was getting the worst of it. Ezio did manage, before he could rise to his feet, to wrestle his dagger free and slice wildly but successfully at the thigh of a heavily built Pazzi thug who was bearing down at him with sword and dagger unsheathed. Ezio’s dagger tore through fabric and into muscle and sinew, and the man let loose an agonized howl and went over, dropping his weapons and clutching at his wound with both hands as the blood belched forth.