The Benedictine bells were just finishing the call to Prime when two panting teens raced up the inner stairs of the great Scaliger palace in Verona. Attaining the top, they skidded to a halt at a demure distance from the open double doors. Listening, they heard arguing and laughter echoing down the hall to them. They grinned at each other in relief. They were not too late.
An under-steward came bustling forward. “Master Montecchio, welcome. Your father and brother are already within.” He glanced at the other young man, with an inquiring inclination of his head.
“This is my friend, Pietro Alighieri,” said Montecchio.
“Alaghieri,” said Pietro automatically.
“Right, sorry. Pietro Alaghieri. He’s the son of –”
“Of course,” said the steward, unable to entirely hide the sign against evil he made behind his back. “Your esteemed father is also within. If you will both doff your boots, I have slippers waiting by the door. You are the last to arrive.”
This statement renewed their panic. Hastily they removed their boots in favor of soft-soled, pointy-toed slippers.
Montecchio said, “I’ve always heard your name as Al-ee-gary. What’s this Al-ah-gary business?”
Pietro shrugged. “It’s my father biting his thumb. Alighieri is the Florentine pronunciation. Since the banishment, he’s insisted on the older pronunciation – Alaghieri, after our ancestor, Alaghiero di Cacciaguida.”
Mariotto nodded as if he were truly interested. “And your brother came with you?”
Pietro grunted as he struggled with his right boot. “Jacopo.”
“What’s he like?”
Familial pride battled honesty. He settled on saying, “He’s fourteen.”
“Ah. No brothers here, just a sister. She’s all right, if a little quiet. Aurelia.”
“Mariotto and Aurelia?”
“Actually, Romeo and Aurelia. My mother named us – or so my father tells me. I never knew her. She chose Romeo as my baptismal name, but he wanted to honor his father, so I am Romeo Mariotto Montecchio. Call me Romeo and I’ll murder you.” He finished fitting his own slippers on and stood up tall. “Ready to face the lion’s den?”
If it were a lion I wouldn’t be so terrified. “How do we explain being late?”
Mariotto clapped Pietro on the shoulder and together they made for the grand hall. “Some things you just have to take a deep breath and live through.”
Just before they reached the door, Pietro halted. There was a fresco on the wall by the door, one of a set of five. Each depicted a man on horseback, behind whom flew the banner of the five-runged ladder. The five men showed a great deal of resemblance, but it was to the last, closest to the door, that Pietro gazed at.
“Our lord,” said Mariotto.
Pietro peered at the glazed paintwork. If you didn’t know the man the fresco might have been deemed flattery. Mounted on a great destrier, mace in one hand, sword in the other, head free of his hound-shaped helmet, Cangrande was fiercely beautiful. The face was full of dark joy. Above his head, alongside the banner of the ladder, flew a personal banner with a greyhound racing across an azure field. The artist had added some dark spots to the banner, signifying the blood spilt in battle by this magnificent cavaliere.
But it was the actual paint that had Pietro’s interest. “This is excellent work.”
“It surely is,” nodded Montecchio, looking close. “The neck of the stallion is just right, and also the length of the mane… Oh – sorry. My family breeds horses. These were painted by Giotto di Bondone.” Pietro startled Mariotto with an abrupt laugh. “You’ve heard of him?”
“Better,” said Pietro. “I know him. He’s a friend of my father's. Sort of. We visited him often in Lucca.” Pietro opened his mouth, then shut it, visibly resisting temptation. Knowing he was missing something, Mariotto made an open gesture with his hands. “What?”
Pietro shook his head, then said, “Have you ever seen Giotto’s children? They're as sweet as can be, really nice. But they’re repulsive. Girls as well as the boys. Ugly as sin. Well, we’re eating supper in their house one night when father asks how a man who paints such beautiful frescoes could make such ugly children.”
“Oh dear God! What did Giotto say?”
Pietro did his best imitation of the cheery painter. “‘My dear fellow, I do all my painting by daylight.’”
Smothering their laughter, they entered the salon.
* * * *
Somewhere near Torre di Confine a lone rider reined in before an inn. He was young and frantic-looking, leaping from his sweat-streaked horse and calling for a fresh one. A stable boy emerged from beside the inn, a hunk of cheese in his hand. At the same moment the inn’s proprietor, a burly man with one arm, sauntered out the door. The stable boy looked on, bored, as his master gave first the youth then his horse an appraising look.
“No,” he said over his shoulder. “No horse for him. To judge by this one, he’ll kill it.”
The breathless boy was by his side clutching his arm before he had fully turned. Gasping, he gave his news. At the same moment he spilled his purse at the inn-keeper’s feet.
Whether it was the news or the gold, the inn-keeper changed his tune at once. The boy was brought some stout ale while the best horse was saddled. The boy shivered the whole time, looking as though he were about to weep. He was certain he’d barely escaped with his life, and was equally sure that each moment of delay brought a whole army in his wake.
In ten minutes he was on the road again, a fresh wineskin hanging from his belt, digging his heels harder and harder into the new horse, leaving the inn-keeper to call his neighbors together to decide if they should flee.
* * * *