Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
BETWEEN the city-state of Croma and the marquisate of Cavareggio lay a broad alluvial plain watered by the rivers Serrio and Oglio and their tributaries. It was a region rich in grasslands, where herds of sheep and goats wandered. It abounded in small forests of chestnut and mulberry trees and in vineyards that produced a rich, heady wine. Its fields of wheat and barley were dotted with tiny hamlets, each comprised of anywhere from four houses to a score. A hard-packed dirt road wound in and out between the villages, connecting the two cities and running westward as far as Savoy and eastward, past Croma, toward Mantua and Ferrara.
A thousand men walked that road on a sunny September morning. Their jerkins, over mail shirts, bore the red-swan insigne of Croma. Four hundred of that thousand were mounted and carried long lances in their hands. The long column passed through the deserted villages in clouds of dust and silence.
Agacio da Verona laughed hoarsely when he saw the empty cottages. “They’re afraid for their victuals, their women’s virtue, and their vomeri,” he said to one of his young officers.
The young man laughed. “Their victuals are too greasy, their women too flaccid, their ploughshares not worth stealing.”
The older man nodded. “Only the land is worth taking. Remember that, Ugo, when the time comes for you to command soldiers. The land is always valuable.” The condottiere rose in his iron stirrups to stare ahead. “And speaking of the land, which way, on its surface, does our road twist now?”
A map came out of the young lieutenant’s saddlebag. He spread it on the high pommel of his saddle. “There are marshes to the left, Signor. To the right, the road curves toward a ford of the Oglio, a longer way around than through the marshes.”
Da Verona grunted. “Then we’ll wade our mounts. The sooner I’m made seneschal of Cavareggio the better. Serve me well in this venture, and I’ll recommend you to the marquis as his next captain.”
An arm lifted and swung, and the column swung left at the fork in the road. Someone began a ribald ditty in a hoarse voice. Soon the voices of a thousand men were shouting its ribald verses to the cloudless sky.
Agacio da Verona swayed lazily in the saddle, a faint smile on his lips. He liked men who sang while going to a fight. It showed their spirit was right.
The song floated outward over the deserted villages and the rippling wheat fields. The westerly breeze caught it and carried its echoes through the dank marshlands between the Oglio and one of its small tributaries, to a high ridge covered with scrub-oak trees.
Two horsemen reined in abruptly at the sound.
One of the men laughed harshly. “They’re coming through the marshes. As God’s my life, I can hardly believe it! The fools!”
Matteo Torriti, who was second in command to the man at his side, smiled slowly. “Agacio da Verona is an impulsive man. I knew him when we both served under Facino Cane. He bulls his way without looking beyond his immediate target.”
“A trait we’ll teach him can be disastrous.” Colleoni chuckled. “Bring up my crossbowmen and the Swiss. Arrange the lines, two for bowmen to one for the pikes.”
“Lances in reserve?” asked Torriti sharply.
“I don’t think I’ll need them. Still, I’ll put you in their command, Matteo. Myself, I’ll stay with the footmen. My signal for a charge will be — Wait!” Colleoni brooded, lower lip thrust forward, as was his habit. “Divide the bowmen and the pikes. Half in the marshes, their backs to Cavareggio. The rest must make an overland run beyond the marsh, toward Croma.”
Torriti stared his mistrust for this maneuver.
Colleoni laughed and slapped his metal thigh with a mailed hand. “You complain because Da Verona doesn’t look beyond the present. I look beyond my victory. Before tomorrow at sunset, I’ll own Croma.”
His lieutenant swallowed hard. For the past two years he had worn the lion device of Francesco Sforza, and he held a high regard for that condottiere. But even Sforza made no such rash boasts as this.
He said thickly, “You’re mad!”
“Only foresighted. Hurry, man! It’ll take time to arrange those Genovese and Swiss where I want them, with their backs to Croma, facing the swamps.”
Matteo Torriti shrugged. This man paid his hire. It was his privilege to give the orders. He drove spurs into his gray gelding and went splashing through the marshes toward camp.
Bartolommeo Colleoni did not watch him go. To himself he said softly, “Croma by sunset tomorrow. What will you think of that, Imperia del Infessura? We will have our triumphal celebration sooner than you intended, I think.”
Vitality flooded his veins. He stood in the stirrups, stretching his body as best he could inside its armor casing. First the fighting, then the wenching. It had been an unwritten law of soldiering since the beginning of time. And with the wenching he himself had in mind—with the Marchioness Imperia—would come something of a reward.
“She’ll want me for a husband, of course,” he said with a laugh. “Her kind doesn’t hop under the coverlets with anything else in mind, usually.” And you, Bart? What about you? Will you want to be the Marquis of Cavareggio and Croma? “Venice will confirm me in the titles. We’d make a splendid shield for the Doge and his Council of Ten, lying here between Visconti and Foscari.”
Yes, Doge Francesco Foscari would appreciate such a shield. It might even be he would see to it that Bartolommeo Colleoni would collect an annual stipend for his astuteness, with something over and above for the necessary expense of maintaining a large force of lances here in his marquisate.
Teresa di Bordoni, now: what of her?
Could he ever forget those nights in her villa gardens at Naples, when she had taught him that he knew absolutely nothing about making love to a woman? She it was who had given refinement to his caresses, who had curbed the impatient fever of his amoral hunger, directing it along pleasant paths and byways into a happy satiation. He could taste her mouth on his at this very moment, and feel the caress of her fingernails across his throat.
His fist hit the saddle-horn “Before God, I love her and only her! I’ll win her from Da Carpi as I’ll win his city and his lands!”
A thought nagged at him. Teresa di Bordoni is no heiress as Imperia del Infessura is! No matter. With blond Teresa, love would be enough.
The image of a farm girl in a thin woolen smock, with bare feet and dirty legs, came into his mind. He smiled a little, dreaming in the saddle. “Lenora,” he whispered, and there was something almost of reverence in his voice. Did he love her, too? If he didn’t, why should his heart thump like a smith’s hammer on an anvil when her image rose up before him? She was a barnyard creature, though, and Bartolommeo Colleoni had no time to waste on peasants. He had a goal in life.
Uneasiness made him squirm a little on his mount. “How many women can a man fall in love with?” he asked the marshland breeze. “Two? Four? A dozen?”
Only one, his heart echoed. Ah, and if that one owned dirty legs and coarse brown hair? With no titles and no fortune to her name? What, then, man of iron armor, with ambition like a sword goading your middle? Marriage with Teresa di Bordoni must first wait on the death of Lotario da Carpi. If he took Croma and the marquis died—a blessing! He could marry his blond widow before the day was done. If by some trick of the devil, Da Carpi got away—why, then he’d gallop back to Imperia del Infessura and marry her!
“As a marquis, I can go about my vengeance a little less hurriedly,” he told himself. “Maybe I can even get Venice to back me up with her soldiers.”
It was a pleasant thought. It was spoiled only by the fact that he kept thinking about Lenora. It seemed that his arms remembered too well the soft crush of her body against his own, as his lips remembered the taste of her mouth.
He toed his roan into a slow gallop, retracing his path through the tall reeds and cattails of the fens. In the distance dark clouds were moving out of Mantua to cover the sun. The world grew sullen and moody as he rode. A goshawk went screaming through the air, diving at a duck. A cold wind moved across the pond, rippling the dank waters and shaking the thick green reeds.
There were fewer than forty flat-bottomed fen boats available to the Genovese arbalesters, but Colleoni crowded five men into each boat, which gave him a firing power of two hundred archers. His pike-men and the rest of the crossbowmen he marched along the marsh road until they came to a wider strip of solid land, where he spread them out in tight semicircles. He gave his officers their instructions, then rode back to the ridge that looked out over the swamp road. With him he brought a dozen young men as mounted messengers.
“Always maintain contact with your forces,” he told one of the riders, a Ferrarese named Zaccaria, who showed his interest by listening with his mouth wide open. “Out of sight, out of touch then who can tell when you’re in danger?”
The Bergamese stood in the stirrups. His hand raised, and his young men fell silent. The wind grew musical with song. One of the youngsters giggled when he realized the nature of the ribald chanting. The voices waxed louder.
“What keeps the boats?” someone asked.
“My orders,” said Colleoni, smiling a little. “Half my bowmen and pikes are running as if the devil were after them to reach the other side of the marsh by traveling on dry ground. Until they get where I want them, I’m not ready to close my trap.”
Now they could see the Croma soldiery, like tiny toys, moving steadily along the fen road. Where an occasional shaft of sunlight shone through the clouds, lance-tips winked as if dipped in fire. They were two miles from the firm ground on which the bulk of his foot forces waited, Colleoni saw. In thirty minutes the two armies would meet.
His horse stamped the ground restlessly and shook its head, jingling the ring-bits He put a hand to its long, silken mane. “Easy now. Easy. I’m as impatient as you are to see if—“
An arbalest string twanged loudly in the marshland stillness. Instantly it was echoed by a hundred more. There were cries of distress and agony all along that slim line of invading soldiers. Taken by surprise, Agacio da Verona would order his foot soldiers into the shallow waters after the boats. They would be weighted down by wet breeches and heavy chain-mail shirts. Some would stumble and fall, and be picked off by the crossbowmen. Those who reached the boats would be exhausted by their struggles in the fens, and fall easy prey to pikes and swords. After a little while it would become a massacre.
Colleoni turned to one of his mounted messengers. “Ride down to Fernando Alcione, who commands on the wide ground. Tell him the boats are in action and to be ready for a charge.” To another he said, “Get as close as you can to the boats. Watch for ten minutes, then ride back to tell me what you have seen.”
His glance at the sun gave him a rough estimate of the time. Within minutes Matteo Torriti would be straddling the Croma road with his arbalesters and pike-men The trap would be shut tight. In the meantime all he could do here on the ridge was wait in patience.
The two riders came back to report that Fernando Alcione was well aware that the boats had joined action with the Cromans, and that the men in the boats were slaying like madmen let loose in a slaughterhouse.
“They fall on all sides, the Cromans!” cried one of his messengers. “They are wiped out before they can reach the boats. Once wounded and they fall into the fen waters—fssst! They’re drowned!”
A trumpet blew. The ground began to vibrate.
“Da Verona is sending his lances to safety at the gallop.” Colleoni laughed grimly. “His foot soldiers will run after them, if they can. My boats will pole their way alongside at a safe distance, and keep pelting them with quarrels. Look. Look there!”
His mailed finger pointed toward the wide ground where the bulk of his army, under Fernando Alcione, waited that oncoming charge. The Croman lances saw what was ahead of them, but they jabbed in spurs and rode the faster.
The ridge gave the onlookers perfect vision. They saw the charge crumple before a hail of crossbow quarrels. The first line of Genovese retreated behind the pike-men The second row fired and retreated, reloading as they went. The pikes braced as a hundred horsemen rode onto their long, sharp points. Even this high up they could hear the agonized screams of horses disemboweled or impaled. Steel clanged as the pike-men fell to with their swords.
“Disengage pikes,” whispered Colleoni frantically. “Disengage and regroup, and use your crossbows!”
As if Fernando Alcione had heard that whisper, his pike-men fell back behind the Genovese, whose bowstrings began twanging again. Men and horses fell to the ground as if some monstrous hand brushed them aside. A trumpet blew with panic in its note.
Colleoni smiled. For the first time in more than an hour he let himself relax against the high cantle. Everything was working smoothly and neatly. He was like a master chess player who, having made his opening gambit, sat back to finish off his opponent in a sweep of power that was inescapable. For Agacio da Verona this day there was only disaster and defeat.
“They’ll flee back the way they came. The boats and Alcione have orders to follow slowly and to harass. Niccolo! Ride like the wind for Matteo Torriti. Tell him what has happened and to be ready for a possible charge against his position.”
He waited until he could no longer hear the hoof-beats of the racing horse, then turned the roan stallion down off the ridge. “Come along, you others. We’ll go the rest of the way with Alcione and his men.”
The Swiss and Genovese mercenaries cheered him when he galloped past them to meet with Fernando Alcione and grip him by the hand. Colleoni wheeled his horse and waved to them, a big grin on his face.
“Fall to, lads!” he shouted. “Take their red-swan jerkins from them! A silver grosso to every man who turns up at the end of the road with one in his hands!” When Fernando Alcione, a dour Sicilian, glowered his ignorance at him, Colleoni laughed. “I’m going to perform a miracle before the day is done, you frostbitten old goat. I’m going to change horses into birds!”
The Sicilian opened his mouth, then closed it.
Like Matteo Torriti before him, he began to doubt the sanity of this young man who performed military miracles. And yet this marshland trap was the product of no diseased mind. Fernando Alcione scratched his bearded chin thoughtfully, then decided to follow his young commander and watch when this miracle took place.
Agacio da Verona was no fool. When he came galloping off the fen road and found fifteen hundred mercenary soldiers drawn up to take whatever fight he chose to put up, he became philosophical. He beckoned young Ugo Tramutatore to his side.
“Carry my congratulations to the man commanding that array that faces us. He has my unconditional surrender. At your signal I’ll advance and give it myself.”
When Bartolommeo Colleoni rode up, the Croman soldiers were filing in a long thin line past his jeering mercenaries, tossing their weapons into giant piles. Beyond them, Matteo Torriti had made a temporary camp of two felled logs and was sitting on one with Agacio da Verona.
Torriti laughed as Colleoni came down out of the saddle. “Messere da Verona says you lead a better life than he does.”
“For the moment, anyhow.” Colleoni pulled off his mailed glove and went to talk to the Croman commander. Over a handshake he said, “I’ll want your jerkins, Signor. The ones with the red-swan crest.”
Da Verona looked surprised. “They are worth less than the mail shirts.”
“It isn’t money I’m concerned with for the moment, but a miracle. I promised one to Fernando over there.”
The Sicilian was frowning, leaning an elbow on his high saddle pommel. He called down, “Do that and I’m your man from now on.”
Torriti grinned. “Capture Croma as you promised—by tomorrow at sundown—and I vow the same thing.”
Colleoni beckoned a Swiss pike-man to him. “Take off your horse-head jerkin. Put this Croman swan over your mail.”
When the soldier stood facing him in the captured tunic, Colleoni turned him toward Alcione. “Tell me, Fernando: what do you see?”
The Sicilian scowled fiercely. “I see one of my pike-men wearing a Croman jerkin.”
“And if you were a soldier standing sentry duty on the walls of Croma, and you saw him?”
“Why, I’d suppose him one of my comrades returning from—Madre di Dio! I see where you aim!”
Torriti slapped his thigh with a metallic clang. “Fool that I am! Of course! We march into Croma—as conquering heroes! When they see us they throw wide their gates to admit their army and begin to celebrate a victory!”
“Our men will become a thousand Croman soldiers reinforced by five hundred of us poor captured Cavareggians wearing our usual horse-head tunics! Enough to take Croma by nightfall, Matteo?”
Torriti cursed with just enough delight in his voice to show he was a good loser. “A gold ducat to St. Mark’s Church if I can see Lotario da Carpi’s face when he realizes the trick we’ve pulled on him.”
Agacio da Verona frowned. “The sentries will be looking for me, Commander. When they do not see me—?”
“Oh, but they will,” Colleoni assured him. “You’ll be right there, leading your men home. You’re the only one we’ll permit to keep his jerkin.”
“If I refuse?”
Colleoni drew his long Savoyard dagger and threw it through the air to fall point down in the ground between the mail sollerets of the Croman officer. “Use it in your throat, Captain. Judge for yourself which is sweeter-death or a payment of ransom by riding with me to Croma.”
Agacio da Verona was becoming more and more the philosopher this day. He shrugged and left the dagger standing in the ground. It was Matteo Torriti who recovered it, wiped it across his tunic, and proffered it to Colleoni.
The tall checkered tower of Croma came first, lifting slowly above the horizon as fifteen hundred men tramped through the dust and heat toward its black and white stones. Bartolommeo Colleoni watched it from the high-peaked saddle of his horse, where his hands were tied together at the wrists. Behind him, trailing disconsolately in his wake, were five hundred picked Swiss and Genovese mercenaries. On either side of him, riding triumphantly in the saddle and jeering good-naturedly at their companions who were forced to march on foot, were more arbalesters and pike-men and six hundred seasoned lances. The men from whom the red-swan jerkins had been taken were miles behind under heavy guard.
He told himself wryly, as he watched the tower grow, that fifteen hundred men were more than enough to take a city without any soldiers. It should be easy. So easy that he was a little distrustful of his own success.
To add to that uneasiness, he remembered that there was a woman somewhere in Lombardy who might put an end to all his dreams and aspirations. The unknown woman whose breasts he had glimpsed in Castle Monterosso could go before Doge Francesco Foscari and accuse him of being the thief of the great Faliero treasure. Swift Venetian vengeance—or justice—would track him down, strip him of his triumphs, and probably see him beheaded between the twin red pillars of the Piazzetta. The realization came to him that everything he did until he found that woman was like writing in sand with a stick in the face of an incoming tide.
The sentries did not even bother to call a challenge. The huge gates opened with a creak and a clang of metal, as the bells in the campanile began to chime musically. People came running to swarm both sides of the broad avenue down which Agacio da Verona paced with Bartolommeo Colleoni at his side. They were yelling wildly and cheering the name of Da Verona.
“So it would have been, had fortune turned the other way for me, Messere Colleoni,” said the Croman captain.
“Be cheered with this reflection, Agacio: in the face of defeat you enjoy the cheers and tumult of the people. It’s a consolation denied to most defeated condottieri!”
When the entire fifteen hundred men were within the walls, the mounted men ripped off their red-swan jerkins and pulled out their swords. The prisoners miraculously became conquerors, catching the weapons tossed down to them from the baggage vans, running as they had been instructed to the city gates and into the main squares, surrounding the barracks and the armory.
There was no molestation of men or women. On this point Colleoni had been most emphatic. “I saw what happened when the Visconti overran my father’s palazzo. I swore then I’d wage my wars in different fashion if ever I got the chance. Disobey and you hang.” There were no disturbances. So orderly were the troops and so businesslike that the citizens of Croma did not know what was happening until it was all over.
Colleoni himself held out his wrists to a dagger in the hand of Matteo Torriti, who slashed away his bonds; then he went galloping through the Square of San Angelo to the palazzo. He was out of the saddle and clanking up the stone steps when a priest came to one of the archway doors and stared at him.
“The marquis and his marchioness, good Father? Da Carpi and Teresa di Bordoni?”
“Not here, Signor. They went hunting in the park just thirty minutes ago. The marchioness was eager to display a riding costume of green velvet—a recent acquisition from a traveling mercer from Paris, I believe—and the marquis was happy to oblige her.”
Colleoni cursed savagely. Everything he aimed at was here in his mailed fist except the two people he wanted the most. He said something of this under his breath but loud enough for the priest to hear.
Fra Anselmo smiled faintly. “Come, my son. Cool your fevers with a visit to the chapel, and say some prayers in gratitude to God for your victory.” The priest was no politician. He acknowledged only one Lord. What took place on earth was, in his opinion, very temporary.
Colleoni rasped, “Of what use are prayers? I rode in here, not so much to win Croma as to make Lotario da Carpi my prisoner. You go and pray for me, good Father.”
Fra Anselmo sighed. “I find a disturbing lack of faith in the younger generation, Captain. I can recall Lotario da Carpi saying the same thing in almost exactly the same words.”
Colleoni only stared.
The news of the fall of Croma to the horse-head banners of poverty-stricken Cavareggio was received with wonder in Lombardy. Venice held a meeting of its Council of Ten to discuss with pleasure the fact that without its knowledge or sanction, a little-known condottiere had added to its domains by a miraculous victory. Since the Marchioness of Cavareggio was the daughter of one of the Council members, such an assumption was not considered too high-handed.
In Milan, Filippo Maria Visconti cursed his cousin from Croma with the obscene vocabulary of one of his own soldiers. It was not so much the loss to his own Milanese possessions that troubled him as it was the gain to the Venetian domains.
“Where did Imperia del Infessura get the money to hire soldiers? Who is this Colleoni I keep hearing so much about? What kind of fool was Agacio da Verona to put his feet into such a disastrous trap?”
“Cousin Philip, I don’t know,” said Lotario da Carpi.
“You don’t know. You don’t know. A ruler makes it his business to know! Now I’ll have to take the field myself, damn the luck. I can’t let an unknown condottiere get away with this. It puts me to shame before the world.” He pondered glumly. “I suppose this will mean war with Venice, too. Unless—”
He relaxed a little on his ducal throne, this heavy-set son of a great father and greater grand-sire In his thirty-second year, he was short and fat, with a cold, regal face and sparse hair on his round skull. He was addicted to wearing maroon caps, somewhat after the fashion of the corno ducale worn by the Doges of Venice. Some of his courtiers said it ennobled him; others, more honest, claimed he wore the cap only to hide his baldness. Nothing could hide his huge belly and his grotesquely thick arms and legs.
Filippo Maria Visconti balled his fist and hammered the arm of his polished walnut chair. “It must be a swift campaign. Swiftly begun, swiftly executed, swiftly concluded! I’ll order out Niccolo Piccinino in command of ten thousand men. By the lowering of the sun tomorrow evening, he’ll be on his way. Before the end of the week, Croma will be in my hands again. This upstart Colleoni will hang by a rope in the courtyard of San Ambrogio.”
Losario da Carpi took his dismissal with delight and hurried off to bring Teresa word that within a fortnight they would be back at their towered palazzo. Meantime they would take a holiday of sorts in Milan. They were just in time for the water festival on the Ticino. Teresa would have a chance to wear another of her new gowns.
Imperia del Infessura looked through the window of her bedchamber for the tenth time in less than an hour. Her gaze scanned the road to Croma for her first glimpse of the returning conqueror. Her hands fluttered at the artful arrangement of her thick black hair, careful lest a single curl be disturbed or one of the teardrop pearls that dangled from hidden pins fall out. She wore a low-cut dogalina of black velvet trimmed in miniver, with sleeves slashed to reveal the warm whiteness of bare arms beneath.
At her back, her brother rose from the curule chair, where he had been sitting, to laugh at her trepidation.
“On my life, Imperia, you’re like a hungry virgin before her bedding.”
“Don’t be disgusting, Alessandro. I admit to a little anxiety, true. I want to thank Bartolommeo for what he’s done.”
“And well you might,” he added wryly, “seeing as how he’s made you one of the richest widows in Lombardy with his victory.” His eyes moved over his sister with the impartial gravity of a judge weighing legal arguments in the privy council.
His eyes reassured him that his sister was still a desirable woman. Especially so to a man who had been a captain of lances until a few short months before, serving under Muzio Attendolo Sforza for Naples. Alessandro Soranzo was the eldest son of Andrea Soranzo, a rich Venetian cotton merchant whose mercantile genius had been no bar to his election to the Council of Ten. He was here in Cavareggio—he had come by fast horse, traveling the hundred miles from Venice in nine hours to make certain that Bartolommeo Colleoni took service with the lion of St. Mark.
If it were necessary that this condottiere marry his sister, so much the better. It would guarantee that Croma would remain allied with her sister city, Cavareggio. With this in mind he studied Imperia more closely. Good skin, smooth and white, and pleasantly filled out at bosom and hips. A ripe mouth, a thinly aristocratic nose, and a pleasant enough disposition. If she had any of the hot blood that ran in his veins, she’d welcome a virile soldier in the big poster bed at his elbow.
He came to stand beside her. “This Colleoni, is he at all handsome?”
Unthinkingly Imperia said, “Like a young Mars, Alessandro. And so strong! When he stands above me, all in armor and mail, I—”
She broke off, a tide of red moving from her forehead down onto her throat. “How shameless you must think me!”
Alessandro chuckled. “I’m your brother, remember? It’s no time for false modesty. The Council of Ten thinks highly of this condottiere who dropped on you like heavenly manna on the Hebrews. He would make a good lieutenant for Francesco Bussone everybody calls him Carmagnola—who commands our soldiery. Besides, a marriage with him would just about guarantee your hold on Croma.”
“Alessandro, please!” Her hands went to her cheeks, and she laughed rather breathlessly. “Consider my—ohhh!”
Her sudden outcry swung him toward the window. A distant cloud was moving along the road toward the city. Not a large cloud that would herald the approach of a large number of soldiers. A small one, such as a little party of riders—a condottiere, with a few trusted aides, riding hard to claim his reward?—might make. Alessandro found his attention diverted by his sister.
She was leaning out the recessed window, and her bosom was rising and falling rapidly. Her lips were parted. There was a brightness in her black eyes that Alessandro had seen in more than one woman during his young lifetime. He suppressed a grin. No need to worry about Imperia. She was as anxious to mate with her young Mars as Venice was to have her do it.
He said, “I’m a little fatigued. I’ll sup in my own room and go over some business accounts Father gave me to check.”
“Yes. Yes, Alessandro. For now, arrivederci.”
Young Soranzo smiled. His sister had not taken her eyes from that approaching dust cloud, and only waved a hand mechanically. It was a good sign. He closed the door very softly behind him so as not to disturb her thoughts.
Bartolommeo Colleoni swept into the palazzo courtyard with a clatter of iron hoofs on flagging. Almost before his roan could slide to a halt, he was bringing his right leg above the high cantle, swinging down nimbly to the ground. Imperia del Infessura stood staring at him from the bottom step of the courtyard stair.
He laughed as he advanced on her, yanking off his gloves. “Victory, madonna bellissima! As I promised—victory!” He caught her white hands, lifting the soft palms to his lips.
Imperia del Infessura knew that the servants were goggling in the portico before the door leading to the scullery, but she had no strength to draw away her hands. Of a sudden her life had become as exciting as any daydream. No longer was she the lonely, bored widow, but a beautiful woman with a handsome young war captain paying his devotions to her. The realization sent the blood hammering through her veins.
“My congratulations, Captain!” she said tremulously.
His eyes were devouring her with a wild hunger, it seemed to her thudding heart. Giosaia had been some years older than she when she had married him, and a dour, taciturn man by nature. Never had there been such a light in his eyes, never his lips so warm against her palms! For a moment she thought she might faint.
The Bergamese dissipated that thought by moving up to her side, a hand on her arm to encourage the smile she gave him. “I would have been here sooner,” he told her, “except that problems arose in Croma. My orders forbade looting, but my soldiers must be paid. I organized a committee of citizens and taxed them according to their incomes, and distributed the largesse among my men.”
She heard his words, but she paid them no heed, murmuring only, “Yes, of course, Captain.” She was too occupied by the hand that pressed her arm to his side, and by the fever in his blue eyes, to think of such mundane things as citizens’ committees.
They moved along the tiled corridor that would bring them, at the far end, into the library. Her captain was wearing, not his metal plates and mail this day, but a modishly cut doublet and trunk hose of blue and silver—her own colors, she thought wildly—and a baggy velvet bonnet that framed his close-cropped yellow hair. Indeed, he looked not at all like a condottiere, except for his broad shoulders and powerful body, but instead like some rakish young courtier come to visit her.
“I’ve had food kept in snow against your coming,” she told him, searching her mind for something to say. “Delicacies that I do not ordinarily enjoy. Victory demands prodigality, Captain.”
His laughter joined her own. “I do admit to a little hunger,” he said, smiling down at her. “And to a thirst.”
Imperia said, “Wine! I have some excellent Valtellina in a ewer in the library.”
They were at the doors, and then inside them. At that instant her condottiere moved swiftly to crush her softness against him and to seize her lips with his mouth. Imperia del Infessura felt her senses fall away in a sweet madness. Her arms yoked his neck as she urged her body even closer.
“My thirst is for your lips,” he whispered into her mouth. “My hunger, for your beauty.”
Again and again he took his fill of her lips, until she felt that she must surely fall to the carpeted floor except for the band his arms made around her middle. This must be the way he won his battles, with a savage impetuosity and a suddenness that gave no chance for anything but surrender! And, oh—what a sweet surrender it could be, to such a man!
When he released her, he held her with his hands spread on her hips, and now he contented himself with gentle kisses on the tip of her nose, on her white brow, on her closed eyelids. He has as much talent for this sort of thing, her heart told her, as he has genius for warfare! Shamelessly she admitted to herself that this concept of his skill was not displeasing.
His arm at her waist drew her to the walnut commode, which held a tall silver ewer and half a dozen silver mugs. With trembling hands she poured red wine and held out the cup to him.
“To your loveliness, Madonna,” he whispered, and swallowed the wine in one gulp. Giosaia had always sipped. Imperia preferred this manly gulping; it seemed more in keeping with the character of a conquering soldier. When he held the mug out she filled it again. Now he drank more slowly, giving her a chance to pour and drink with him.
There was a curule chair beside the ambry. He seated himself and grasping her wrist, brought her down across his thighs. Breathless, she could only stare at him.
“Now we can drink in comfort, bellissima,” he said, laughing.
Between gulps of the Valtellina, he kissed her: deep, furious kisses that roused something primitive in her body. For a while all thought fled away before this inundation of the senses. When she grew aware that his mouth searched her nude shoulders and lower, into the privacy of her laced bodice, it was too late to forbid his caresses. Nor did she stop the hand that journeyed below the full skirt, discovering the shapeliness of her legs. Giosaia would have died before committing such explorations in the daytime. And in the library, of all places! Somehow, Imperia del Infessura was glad that it was Bartolommeo and not Giosaia who was outraging her sense of decorum.
“The dinner,” she whispered helplessly, her head on his shoulder as he separated the drawstrings of her bodice lacings. “The servants will be preparing dinner.”
Her eyes closed, and a tremor ran from her slippered feet to her disarranged hair. Her fingers closed on his throat, holding him to his devotions. After a little while she stared up at him with swimming eyes.
“My bedroom is at the other end of the hall,” she murmured. When he would have risen, she held fast to him with her arms. “You have me half disrobed, Captain. I can’t walk into the hall this way!”
Her hand invited his gaze to the open bodice, which was slipped halfway down her arms, and to the uplifted skirt that showed slim legs to their thighs. He laughed and bent his head to kiss her flesh.
“I’ll carry you, Madonna. As a conqueror does a spoil of victory.”
“Yes, I’d like that.’”
It gave her an excuse for her behavior, she thought fleetingly. She felt herself swung up into his powerful arms and carried like a child out of the library. It came to her that she had never before approached the big poster bed in her palazzo bedroom in such a pleasant manner.
Next morning as they were at breakfast, a dusty rider brought news that the Duke of Milan was advancing along the road from Lodi to Croma with ten thousand soldiers at his back.
“Ten thousand!” cried Alessandro Soranzo, who had been introduced to Colleoni short moments before and invited to breakfast. He added bitterly, “Your triumph is short-lived, my good Bart. By tomorrow Croma will be once again in Milanese hands!”
The Bergamese only laughed. To the amazement of the man and woman who sat at the long refectory table with him, he said, “To do that, our good duke must first reach that city. And that is something that I’ll make an impossibility for him.”
They stared at him in amazement. He said harshly, in the face of that dumbfounderment, “Do you take me for a fool? Don’t you think I asked myself, even before I joined battle with Agacio da Verona, what steps Filippo Maria Visconti would take when Croma fell to your horse-head banner?”
Alessandro Soranzo choked while he said, “Do you mean to tell me you look so far ahead?”
“Don’t you, when you send a shipment of cotton as far as England? You consider prices, the possible floundering of your vessels, whether or not the English will be in a mood to buy.”
“Well, yes. But that’s business, and—”
Colleoni pushed back his chair and rose to his feet. He bowed slightly to Imperia del Infessura and then swung on her staring brother. “Selling cotton is the business of Alessandro Soranzo. Making war is the business of Bartolommeo Colleoni. Trust me, I beg you.”
Then he made a wry face. “Ten thousand soldiers. I had not counted on such odds. It will require desperate measures.”
When he was gone from the dining room, Alessandro regarded his sister gravely. “That man is either a madman or a genius. Let us trust, for our peace of mind, it isn’t the former.”
Imperia del Infessura was still living the nighttime hours. She said dreamily, “He is neither of those things, Alessandro. He is a god in mortal flesh.”
Her brother shrugged. “You have been too long a widow,” he growled, and turned again to his breakfast.