“This happened this morning?” The Capitano’s eyes scanned the few written lines again and again, ripping every ounce of meaning from them.
“Just – before dawn,” gasped the rider. “Ant– Ant–”
The Scaliger looked up. “When you can! Don't waste my time!” The youth cowed, Cangrande’s tone softened. “Get your breath back, then tell. You did well getting this past the enemy. A minute more won't break us.” The parchment was glanced at once more. A wry grin came to the thin lips. “Good for you, Ponzoni. I didn't think you had it in you.”
Cangrande turned his full attention to the messenger. “I’m going to put some questions to you. You will answer with nods. Understand?”
The young rider started to speak, then caught himself and nodded.
“Vicenza’s suburb is taken?”
“They put up a fight?”
“They went willingly?”
A hesitant, almost fearful, nod. There was no change in the face that questioned him.
“Antonio da Nogarola is in charge in the city?”
“Bailardino must still be in the north.”
It wasn't a question, but the young messenger nodded anyway.
“Has he fortified the inner city wall?”
A nod, but there was some hesitation.
“He was just ordering it when you left.”
A vigorous nod, then the lad opened his mouth. His breath had returned. “Not only the walls – Ser Nogarola ordered the houses in San Pietro fired – to deprive the enemy of cover.”
“Excellent!” He clapped a hand on the messenger’s shoulder. “You've done well. One more question – was there any sign of the Count of San Bonifacio?”
“They say he lead the assault into the suburb.”
Cangrande swore, then patted the boy on the shoulder. “What is your name, youngster?”
“Muzio, you've completed your charge. You may now have any bed in the palace. Just repeat what you told me to my master-at-arms below. Ask for Nico da Lozzo. Tell him I said muster as many men as he can and ride to Vicenza.” His eyes flickered to a wineskin hanging from the lad's belt. “Is it full?” Without being asked the boy unslung it from his belt and handed it to the Capitano. “My thanks,” said Cangrande, gripping the skin in one hand while the other made a fist to gently prod the boy's shoulder. “Now go, tell Nico what you know. And tell him I've gone already.”
Full of new energy, the boy made to run off when the great man touched his shoulder. “One last question. Is the wife of Bailardino de Nogarola well?”
“She was when I saw her, lord. She was helping Signore da Nogarola give the orders.”
“Of course she was. Go now, lad.”
The sound of the boy’s footsteps echoed among the empty loggia. For a moment the great man stood alone. He lifted the wineskin to his lips and drank off the contents in a single pull, then tossed the empty bladder aside.
In a flurry of movement, the Scaliger moved towards one of the perches. His hands moved among several of the birds waiting there. They made noise as he released the tether from one of them. It was the same merlin he had petted earlier. With a light step the blindfolded bird was on his shoulder.
To the seemingly empty hall he said, “If you’re coming, try to keep up.”
Then Cangrande took a step and disappeared behind the billowing curtains of the nearest arch of the loggia. Seconds later Jupiter began to whimper. The three hidden watchers emerged a second later. Save for the greyhound and the falcons, they were quite alone.
Glancing around, Antonio said, “Where the hell...?”
“Was he talking to us?” wondered Mariotto.
“He didn’t know we were here,” said Antonio with certainty.
Pietro ran to the arch Cangrande had disappeared behind. The lord of Verona was gone. The only thing here was the greyhound, straining against the railing to the balcony. Looking at the cobbled street one level below Pietro said, “He jumped.”
“What?” Mariotto and Antonio joined him, arriving just in time to see a golden-headed blur race out from the stables below them, heading east down a private street. Not bothering with stairs, Cangrande had found a horse and started out for Vicenza.
Pietro shared blank looks with Mariotto and Antonio. In unison Mariotto and Antonio imitated Cangrande, leaping off the balcony to the stables below, Mariotto still bearing the bird on his arm.
Pietro thought they were both crazy. But already he had swung his own legs over the rail and dropped hard to the cobbled street. In moments he was joining them in their search for horses.
Above them the greyhound raced for the door, down the stairs to the stable, determined not to be left behind.