He drove in and out of the torch-lit room, his long blade a slash of red fire before him. His feet slapped the wooden flooring as he executed a flanconade or slid into the rhythmic movement of a balestra. The torches in the iron wall sockets glowed down on his frayed leather jerkin, on his length, and wide shoulders, painting him in crimson against the black backdrop of the empty fencing school.
"So!" he snarled. "So this is the way of your circolazione, Messer Jacopo!" And his thick wrist turned and the naked blade slid through the darkness; the gleaming point barely touched the brick of the wall, and fell away.
His name was Ilarion, and Jacopo Balisandro, who owned the fencing school, always added, with a wry twist of his loose lips, della stalla. Of the stables. Even the plump and laughing Tea Panchesi, who served the men-at-arms and University students at the corner tavern, joined in the good-naturedly haloed "Ilarion! Ilarion della stalla!" when he trudged by, a broom or a pail of slops dangling from one big hand, reeking of the horses that carried their masters to the fencing hall.
That was the way they knew him when the sun shone down on this little corner of Rome in the eighth year of His Eminence, Alexander VI. The city was thronged with hard-faced condottieri and swaggering foreign soldiers, for all Italy was rising, from Calabria in the south to Piedmont in the north, to serve the bull banner of Cesare Borgia, and fight against the French.
Half the world appeared to move on Rome in this late summer of 1500. Holy men in brown cloth frocks tramped the Via Flaminia and the Via Appia beside knights and nobles in armor riding powerful war horses. Lovely women in silks and brocades swayed to the curveting of sleek mares, or jostled in the bouncing coaches which scattered the bare-footed farm women from Tuscany and Campania.
The blue waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea were thick with carracks, narrow galiots from Africa, and the long, many-oared galleys from Genoa and Venice. France sent its coquets, and Spain its galleons. For this was the Jubilee Year, when the Holy Door of St. Peter's was thrown open, and the pilgrims came from Flanders and the Levant, from the Danube and the plains of Granada, to worship in the square before the great cathedral.
In the daylight hours, Ilarion the stable-boy went on about his chores, unaware that the world was erupting all around him.
But by night, creeping on naked feet from his stable pallet to the empty fencing hall, Ilarion was a different person. His hangdog gloom was gone, and his blue eyes glittered as they stared at the humpbacked, long-legged figure of ugly old Jacopo Balisandro slashing the empty air with one of his many rapiers, executing counters and doppio circolazione that no eyes but those of the hidden Ilarion had ever seen.
He would lie there in the shadows, not daring to breathe, for if the one-eyed Jacopo saw him, it would mean kicks and cuffs. Only his eyes lived as he lay there following the rhythmic patterns of that cunning blade.
And when the old man shuffled off to his bed on the upper floor, an ornate four-poster that rumor said he had looted from a Ferraran palace in the Venetian campaign of '83, Ilarion came off his belly. He took down one of the old man's swords and practiced the thrusts and movements he had observed so studiously.
For all the years he could remember, Ilarion had slaved for the old maestro, cleaning the stables and the hall. When he could, he stole away to visit fat Fra Matteo at the church beyond the campanile, on the Via Malatesta. It was Fra Matteo who taught him to read and to scrawl his name across a bit of parchment. And sometimes, after he had stolen through the moonlight into Tea Panchesi's pallet to spend the night with her, it was Fra Matteo who gave him absolution and a mild scolding.
He could never have told why he lost sleep to watch the old man in his solitary fencings. Sometimes he tried to put his thoughts into words, as when Tea lay with the moonbeams silvering her, looking up at him, questions pouring from her generous mouth.
"It changes him, the sword! To see that bent old body stamp into the molinello! To see his hump and his gnarled middle disappear when he uses the filo! If the sword can do that for him, think what it might do for me!"
That was why Ilarion della stalla forgot his sleep and his straw-colored pallet, and slashed the thin air with a sword until the dust rose from the floor plankings to choke him.
And that was why, on a crisp night in early September, when the door opened silently and a man and a woman crept in on soundless feet, they stared at his torch-reddened blade and intent face, and sensed something of the fire that burned in him.
It was the woman whose tiny white hands beat applause when he lowered the blade to suck air into his tortured lungs.
Ilarion heard the sound, and he whirled about.
He knew they had stepped off the streets to snatch an intimate moment, where kisses and the play of hands in stolen caresses might pass unseen. No sheltering doorway was safe from invasion during the fiesta proclaimed to celebrate the conquest of Forli by the Duke of Valentinois, Cesare Borgia. Attracted first by their own flesh, and then by the hiss of his blade and the stampings of his feet, the couple had spied on him.
"Why, it's Ilarion!" said the man, waving a pomade ball close against his thin nostrils. "Balisandro's stable-boy!"
"Stable-boy or not, he can use a sword,” retorted the woman. She came forward a step, and the torchlight gleamed on the pearls set in her thick blonde hair and on the jewels that were sewn into the red satin of her cloak. Her eyes glowed brightly through the slits of her golden domino, and her wet red mouth was twisted in an excited smile.
"Did you ever see such a wrist, Paolo? His blade is a part of his arm!"
The man who leaned across her naked shoulder was a raffish dandy in violet doublet trimmed in ermine. Tight lavender hose, slashed in yellow, clung to his legs. A purple mask hid his lean face with its tight lips. The fingers of his left hand were lost under the cloak that she held to her as they stood in close embrace.
"Beatrice," he said, yawning. "You and your enthusiasms! So the fellow can wield a sword. I know any number who can do the same thing!"
"But not like this one! I have seen Bevilacqua, and Bevilacqua is a tyro beside this boy!"
The woman shrugged loose from the fop's hand, and came toward Ilarion. Her white hands, jeweled rings flashing fire from their slim fingers, were lifting the satin bodice that had slipped with the man's strokings. Ilarion caught a glimpse of her bosom, pale as mare's milk, before she fastened the crimson bodice.
His cheeks flushed, Ilarion was aware that she watched his eyes. Her laughter rang softly under the smoke-blackened beams of the hall. She fussed longer than was necessary in settling the jeweled front of her rich gown, affording his probing eyes disturbing glimpses of her. Her mouth twitched in amusement.
"Paolo, why not try him out? See if he can use that long blade against a man as well as he uses it against a shadow's arm!"
There was challenge in her bold eyes as they stared deep into his, challenge in the lift of her fleshy shoulders, in the sway of her hips. Ilarion touched his dry lips with his tongue. If old Jacopo chanced on him like this, talking to nobility ...”
He croaked, "Gracious lady, forgive me. I must—"
The dandy in the violet satin doublet came out of the shadows. “Relax, giovane! When the Countess Beatrice commands, oafs like you obey. Come! I'll make it short. It'll be over and you safe in your bed before you know it."
He whipped a blade from the wall rack and bent it, listening to the steel's clear spanng as he released it. His dark eyes looked bored as they turned on Ilarion. There is no emotion in him at all, Ilarion thought. To him, I'm like a table or the floor beneath his feet. Anger stirred in him, a hot, pulsing thing which shook him. Easy, easy, he told himself. Old Jacopo will wallop you with his olive-wood club if you don't let him disarm you.
But the woman was watching, and a devil stirred in Ilarion as he slid his right foot forward into position. The fop touched his blade an instant, fell away, and came in. Ilarion retreated slowly, his point in tierce, moving only to counter the dandy's lunges.
They stamped toward the wall, where the torch flung red fire across their faces. The dandy was sweating as he pressed the attack. A film of moisture stood out under the black curls framed in the velvet, pearl-hung cap. His black eyes had lost their boredom, and glowed with sullen rage as Ilarion's blade parried his every attack.
He came in high, to be met with a parry in prime. He came in low, to find the stable-boy using a bind in quarte, turning his blade as easily as he might a wench's slap, and thrusting forward in the fianconata.
"Per Bacco!" snarled the fop, slipping in the fury of the disengage.
The woman laughed from the shadows of the arch, and her laughter was a warm, hot thing in Ilarion's ears. "He's playing with you, Paolo! I told you he was better than Bevilacqua!"
The mockery in that voice made the black eyes boring into Ilarion's blaze in hot rage. Suddenly Ilarion knew, with a queer wrench of his belly, that the dandy meant to kill him. He could never let this stable-boy live to tell the world that the Countess Beatrice del Gallina had witnessed his humiliation. For a moment Ilarion considered taking the man's blade in his arm, hoping a simple blood-letting might suffice. But one look into those eyes changed his mind. Blood-letting was not enough. The fop hated him, and wanted a kill.
Ilarion lunged. His blade slid past the other's frantic guard, a darting length of steel. The point cut into the velvet purse that dangled from Paolo da Rienza's girdle of golden links. A dozen coins went flying across the floor. A small cameo, with the face of a woman carved into its ivory and cabochon, fell to the floor, and rolled away.
Paolo da Rienza snarled his rage and came in fast, breathing heavily. Ilarion moved his wrist, down and up, catching the fop's blade under the quillon of his own. His wrist circled so swiftly that not even the woman's bright eyes could follow it.
Paolo da Rienza cursed savagely as he felt his sword yanked viciously from his numbed fingers by that bind. It flew upward, toward the dark beams of the ceiling, and dug into the wood, humming.
Da Rienza, snatched at a slim dagger in his belt, lifted it. He poised on the balls of his feet, and launched himself at Ilarion.
"Paolo!” cried the woman, and came into the torchlight, bringing heady perfume and a rustle of satin skirts with her. She came close to Ilarion, looking up at him with eyes that were brighter than before.
"Paolo, you fool!” she breathed. "Can't you see he's what we need? Admit it! Marsanti does not know him. He will never suspect!"
"Marsanti?” The fop turned a blank face toward the woman. In a daze, scowling behind his purple mask, he slid his stiletto into its sheath. He licked his thin lips. "Biagio Marsanti would make mincemeat of this stable-boy It was just pure luck he disarmed—"
"Oh, Paolo. You are eaten alive with jealousy! This boy can go a long way with that sword of his. Only old Jacopo might be nimbler with a rapier. And Jacopo is so old. So ugly!"
Ilarion drew a deep breath as the woman smiled at him. Her fingers touched his arm, and crept upward until her long, tinted nails scratched lightly at his cheek. The countess smiled at what she read in his face. Without removing her eyes from Ilarion, she said, “Paolo, I have decided! Go to Messer Balisandro. Buy the boy's bondage! I'll talk to him—explain what I want him to do!"
Paolo da Rienza snarled, "Buy his bondage? The old fool won't sell him! He—"
Beatrice, Countess del Gallina, stamped her tiny foot. "Hurry, Paolo! Gold will speak with better effect than your clumsy tongue! Offer him gold—much gold! He will sell the boy—to me!"
The dandy turned and strode into the shadows. Beatrice laughed softly, shifting on her satin-shod feet. Her feverish eyes caught at something deep inside Ilarion, even as her warm fingers caught his hand and drew him under the shadowed archway, along the cobble-stoned outer loggia. When she pressed his shoulders against the frescoed wall and leaned upon him, he dared not meet her eyes.
"So?" she asked archly. "You're a coward only to a woman? You are a very good-looking boy, Ilarion, with your yellow hair and blue eyes. You might go far, you and that sword of yours."
"But, madonna," stammered Ilarion, "I'm only a stable-boy To do what you suggest is to attempt what is impossible!"
Her laughter was like the tinkling of the fountain waters in the Piazza de Crocífero. "La, Ilarion! Life is for living, for snatching pleasure while pleasure can be had! A man takes what he can, now! His birth—be it in a ducal palace or a stable is not held against him! Not if he can offer the world something! And you can offer it a sword!"
Her eyes mocked him through the slits in her golden mask. The perfume which dizzied him, as she shook her golden curls, was like a hypnotic incense.
Her full mouth pouted. "I need someone who can fight!" "Messer Balisandro," said Ilarion, with a frown, recalling the fierce one-eyed fencing master, "is far greater than I. He could help you. If you paid him, that is. He will do anything for gold."
"Poof!" whispered the countess. "Poof, I say! That humpbacked monster! I shudder to think of him. But you—young, strong—yes, even handsome, you devil!—you would make a lady a fine champion."
"Anything in my power, madonna,” he stammered.
"There is a man—a fiend, say—who has a painting of me. He is an artist, who duels better than he paints. He will not yield up his canvas. Not for gold; nor from threats. A strong man could take it away from him, slit it from its frame in his studio, wrap it beneath his cloak, and bring it to me.”
She leaned against him, and through the thin stuff of the red satin cloak he could feel the yielding softness of her rich white bosom. Her eyes and her smiling lips warmed him, sent a wild shock through his lean body. "Such a man would be well rewarded, Messer Ilarion!"
The woman gave him no time to think. She drew back a little and fumbled in her cape, bringing out a tiny silk purse. It was heavy with gold florins. She pressed it into his hands. "Give this to old Jacopo. Make him teach you much about the sword! Remember, even the great Hercules once cleaned out stables! And now, my cape!" She held it out to him, a billowing length of red satin trimmed with sable. Moonlight glimmered on the soft flesh of her bare shoulders, and painted dark shadows. She watched where his eyes roved, and she smiled.
She whispered, "You have not asked me what I wore when Messer Marsanti painted that portrait of me, Ilarion. Have you no curiosity?”
“What were you wearing?"
She slipped loose and ran toward the yard, out into the full moonlight, lifting her skirts so that slim ankles appeared. Her voice floated back to him, and he had to strain to catch the words in the soft laughter.
"I wore very little, Messer Ilarion! I wore—nothing at all!"
He stood there a long time, hearing Paolo da Rienza leave by the front door, and the snick of the bolt as old Jacopo shot it home. He thought of Beatrice del Gallina, and of how she must have looked, posing for the Marsanti painting. Lifting his head, he stared at a shaft of moonlight that probed into the shadows of the hall, coating an object on the floor with pale fire. Curious, Ilarion moved into the fencing room and bent to pick the bauble from the floor. He remembered a moment in his duel with Paolo da Rienza when his sword-point had slashed the fop's velvet purse. From the corner of his eye, he had seen this cameo fall. Now he put his eyes to it, and caught his breath.
Some unknown artist had captured a woman here forever in ivory and cabochon, and Ilarion felt his heart leap in his chest as he stared down at slanted green eyes and hair the color of a Roman sunset. Breathless, he recalled the books that Fra Matteo had given him to read and study. There had been the fablieux of La Castoyement d'un Pere à son Fils and the Ordene de Chivalerie, together with other writings of the jongleurs and the troubadours, and the ballads of the love courts of Provence.
Steeped in this tradition, it was easy for him to dream also of the immortal loves of Beatrice de Portinari and Danti Alighieri, of Laura de Noves and Petrarch, and to imagine some of their fire in himself. That he could fancy himself in love with a woman whom he saw only thus in ivory and cabochon was an idle fancy—yet it gave him pleasure. He stood for long moments filling his eyes with the beauty etched forever on the cameo, lost in a magic moment.
And then a bitter smile twisted his lips. Such a dream, such a noble love, was not for a stable-boy! He sighed, and put the cameo down so old Jacopo could find it and return it to Paolo da Rienza. But his fingers lingered on the ivory, as if caressing it, until the moonlight faded from the window.
After a while, he stumbled drunkenly along the stones and into the dark, empty stable. He was lighting a little brass oil lamp when he heard old Jacopo entering the chamber. His great white head swung forward on immense, sagging shoulders. From under the jagged white brows a black eye glittered brightly, cruelly. The loose wet lips drooled spittle. A black square of silk hid the raw, empty eye socket that was a memento of the Ferraran campaign.
Jacopo came into the room slowly, sliding crabwise on his great legs that were like gnarled logs in tight plum hose. His voice was biting.
"So! The stable-boy grows ambitious! Too ambitious to work any longer for poor Jacopo Balisandro. He has a new master! Or should I say—mistress?"
The contessa's perfume clung to Ilarion. It made him bold. He said, "They paid you well. Too well.”
“You scorzone! You scullery boy! You—"
Ilarion held out the silk purse and let it jingle. Old Jacopo lowered his huge arm and licked his lips. Ilarion threw the purse and it landed with a sodden thunk on the little wooden table that held the oil lamp. The old man stared at the purse, and his black eye asked a question.
"For you, Jacopo."
"Messer Jacopo to you, stable-boy!" the old man snarled. His powerful fingers lifted the purse and tore at the drawstring. He poured the gold coins into a huge palm. His lips drooled as the coins clinked, and he wiped them with the empty sack.
"For old Jacopo, eh? All these ducats?” His laughter cackled. "Whose gullet do I slit?”
"I'm paying you for lessons—lessons with the foil. But not the lessons you teach fops like Paolo da Rienza! Lessons in the art of fencing that I see you teaching yourself when the world sleeps. When you are alone in the hall, and none watches you but me."
For a wild moment he thought the old man would rip at his throat with his hooked talons. But the coins in his uplifted hand recalled him to his senses. He put the coins back into the purse, and slid the purse into his belt.
"So, then. You spy on old Jacopo, do you?" His great lips twisted. “Who gave you the gold, Ilarion? The Countess Beatrice? She must think you a good playmate."
Ilarion moved, but the old man scuttled aside into the shadows like some monstrous spider. His laughter boomed out. "Finicky, are we? Can't abide the truth, can we? Well, how is she, boy? As good as Tea Panchesi? Or haven't you found that out, yet? What've you promised in exchange for a crazy dream?"
Ilarion growled, and the sound of it brought the old man out into the light again. "No need for temper between us, boy. I'm not one for denying a strong youth the pleasures a fine lady can teach him! You want lessons, do you? So!"
He stalked slowly around Ilarion. His black eyes studied the lean middle and the wide shoulders that had outgrown the tight leather jerkin. He noted the hard calves and the long legs in the tattered hose. His palm slapped at Ilarion's chest.
"You're solid. Good arms and legs. Strength enough. And wit enough, too, judging by the night's happenings. But the sword is a jealous mistress, Ilarion of the stables. It needs something more than muscle to handle her."
Ilarion snarled, "I could have blooded Paolo da Rienza a dozen times tonight. I've lost sleep too many nights watching you fencing the shadows, old one. I remembered what I saw."
Jacopo grinned, white head bobbing. "Ai, I'll wager you watched me. No wonder Da Rienza was in such a fury tonight, demanding your bondage, forcing me to name a sum! You must have learned something, at that!
"So you spent your nights watching old Jacopo? No wonder you were so slow about your chores. Ah, well," he clinked the coins in the bulging purse at his belt, then continued, "perhaps it wasn't time wasted."
"What about the lessons?”
"Eh? The lessons? Old Jacopo grows talkative, does he? So be it. Come along. We'll learn quickly enough how much you know of the art of fence."
They walked from the little stable across the loggia to the high, smoke-stained arch of the fencing hall. Jacopo scurried into the darkness, lighting torches, thrusting them into iron brackets inset in the wall paneling. The torches flared brightly, reflecting red fire from the swords in their racks and the polished helmets and old standards hung here and there on the walls.
Jacopo snatched a rapier from the rack and made it sing as he lashed the air. His cackle echoed as he wrapped his gnarled fingers about the braided hilt.
"Lessons you want, is it? Lessons you shall have, my fine stable-boy En garde!"
He came in a rush and a stamp of feet, and for the moment Ilarion thought he saw raw, hot hate in the bright black eye that peered at him from under the shaggy white brows. But as Ilarion took his blade in tierce and slid it harmlessly away, the old man chuckled.
"Aha, so! You used your eyes well while you cheated on poor old Jacopo! Aha—now, so! Eh, well-keen eyes you have, Messer Ilarion della stalla!"
The humped old man, still powerful and agile despite the age-twisted limbs, moved in, his blade a blood-red smear in the torchlight. His feet in their leather sandals stamped and slid, shuffled and side-stepped. The arm, bare below the sleeve of his cloak, was like the bole of a thick oak. Untiring, it moved the sword here and there, in and out, feinting for clinks in the armor of Ilarion's guard.
He came in high, to be met by a riposte that sent him back three feet. He swept in low, body sweeping the floor, his blade stabbing out. "Ah, peste!” he snarled, as Ilarion's blade skipped by his nose, in a flanconade of quarte.
Grudgingly, respect began to dawn in the feverish old eyes. Old Jacopo knew caution as he maneuvered his sword. He swore under his breath a dozen times.
The blades scraped and clanged, loud in the still room. The pound of feet, the stamp of sandals in a swift attack, the harsh and labored breathing went on and on. The old man was as untiring as an ox. His iron body, which had stood to the rigors of condottieri campaigns in the past, did not betray him now.
And then, as dawn tinted the high windows a pearl gray, old Jacopo cried out, "Ala, Messer Ilarion—this is it!"
His blade winked, was lost in a flurry of movement. The point came to a stop an inch from Ilarion's flat belly. Under the shaggy brows, the black eyes glittered cruelly.
"I ought to run you through, stable-boy! I don't because Jacopo Belisandro is a man of honor. I gave my word to Da Rienza, and old Jacopo keeps his word." The old man broke off to cackle shrilly, "Ai, though it means a loss to me here! The trouble I'll have to train a new slops-boy! Hee—hee! But one must indulge such a pretty mare as the contessa, eh?”
Ilarion put away his blade. He could feel that cold black eye following his every movement. The old one could cut me to ribbons any time he felt like it, he thought. His shoulders sagged, and then he heard old Jacopo's laughter ring out.
"Don't take this to heart, stable-boy You have talent. Ai, a bit of value to the world as a swordsman. But you treat your blade like a stranger. It's a part of you—like a long finger. Come, look!"
Ilarion stepped to the bent old man's side. He watched the ease with which Jacopo moved the silver of steel. It slid and darted as if endowed with life.
"You see? Eh? Make it think for itself! Make it do the work. It takes too long for your brain to relay its message to your arm, and your arm to your wrist! The blade itself must find the opening and—fa!— it drags you along with it.
"In time, you will know that feel, the quiver of the steel running into your hand as though your blade is telling you. 'Now! Now is the moment for the lunge' Or else, 'Parry! Parry the blade that slips by me!'”
Almost reverently old Jacopo put away his sword and brooded at Ilarion. He growled, "Practice! Always, it takes much practice to make the blade into the extra finger. But you will learn. Already you are better than—Well, no matter. Now, off to your pallet with you!"
Ilarion saw him life the leather bag of gold florins, saw the loose lips twist as the black eye lighted greedily. Gold and cruelty, those were the old one's gods. He would be taking the sack now to the black tile under the statue of the Venus in the loggia, where he kept his treasures. He would fumble about until he undid the mechanism that lifted the tile. Many times Ilarion had watched when Jacopo thought him asleep in the stable room. Often had he himself sought the secret of the tile, when his body ached from the kicks and blows of the club that Jacopo had wielded. But always the secret of the mechanism had eluded the clutch of his hunting fingers.
Ilarion shrugged and turned away. He went out into the yard and stared upward at the stars. Much had happened to Ilarion della stalla since those stars first winked down this night. He wondered, as dawn brightened the world around him, what other nights and other days would bring.
He stumbled into the stable. He tossed his jacket from him and lay naked to the waist, gulping in the cool morning air. After a moment his eyes closed, and he dreamed.
The Contessa Beatrice was posing for Ilarion in his dream. Posing in a mist, through which he could catch disturbing glimpses of her rich, creamy flesh. And he was painting her portrait with a sword.