Extract from Chapter 7
Seeming too large for the space beneath my ribs. Thudding so noisily that I thought my master walking just behind me, following the light of the lantern I held up to show our way, must hear it.
‘Halt here, boy.’ He spoke softly, took the lantern from me and raised it to the street name painted on the wall. ‘Street of Souls,’ he murmured. ‘Yes, this is the place.’
He kept the lantern and went into the alleyway.
And I was left to hasten after him. Glancing around fearfully. Walking down the narrow street, he lifted the light high, and the darkness dispersed. But the shadows scrolled in once more as we passed, creeping at our heels, bringing the spectres who hover in the night to pounce on the unwary.
I made the gesture used by the gypsies to keep away evil, and then, as I caught the amused glance of the Maestro, I fumbled the sign of the cross on my forehead, breast and shoulders. He laughed out loud at me then, but not unkindly.
‘Keep your magic signs to ward off the dangers of this world, Matteo. The harm that men do to each other in battle is more wicked than any the spirits can offer.’
We came to a door set in a wall. Unmarked but not unknown. The mortuary door of the hospital of the city of Averno.
‘Hold the satchel, Matteo.’ He handed me the large bag that contained his working tools, his papers, parchments and chalks.
I’d only been with his household a short time but I knew that this was an honour. I put the strap around my shoulder and clasped the heavy leather bag carefully in both hands.
He positioned the lamp so that it would shine on his own face. Then he knocked on the door. We waited. At this time of night the porter would be asleep or drunk at his post. After sunset no one came to collect their dead.
The Maestro raised his fist and pounded on the door. Minutes elapsed. Then the grille slid back. A bad-tempered face regarded us.
‘I have permission from the magistrate to examine the bodies of the dead.’ The Maestro took the order from the inner fold of his sleeve. He held it up.
‘You are?’ Through the grille the porter spoke in the superior way of men of little authority.
‘Leonardo, engineer, and . . . painter. From the place known as Vinci.’
‘Vinci? Never heard of it.’
‘I also carry another pass’ – the Maestro spoke quietly – ‘which allows me free entry to wherever I choose. It has the personal seal of the Borgia on it.’
The man recoiled.
‘Il Valentino,’ the Maestro continued, without changing the expression on his face, ‘Cesare Borgia – you may have heard of him?’ He placed a caress rather than an emphasis on the last word of the sentence.
The mortuary attendant had the door open before the Maestro drew another breath. He bent so low that his brow almost touched the cobbles.
As we passed through the Maestro winked at me.
My heart lifted. For to begin with, in those first weeks of being his servant, I was not always sure of his mood. Was not familiar with his deep periods of reflection, when he hardly spoke or ate or slept. Had not yet become accustomed to his intensities and preoccupations.