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The Leonardo Effect

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La Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia 1482

Ezio was finally getting somewhere with the innkeeper's pretty daughter. When she almost pushed her bosom in his face when refilling his mug, he knew three nights of dark looks from beneath his hood and purred molte grazie, bellissimas were about to pay off. After spending most of the day on horseback, traveling to his mark and back, he could have done with a bath and a change of clothes, but if fate so decided, a quick tumble in the pantry in his grimy gear was definitely not beneath him.

And then a drunken gondolier behind him raised his voice above the drone of other patrons in the crowded tavern, and all went to hell.

“It is the God’s own truth,” the man proclaimed, his Venetian so thick Ezio could barely follow. “That painter from Vinci is a lover of boys. A sodomite.”

Chiudi il becco! Sei fuori come un balcone.

But the gondolier was too gone with drink or indignation to listen to his fellows. “Ha! You’d sing a different canzone if you knew what I know. Why do you think so many young models are paid to visit artists’ workshops? Do you think that only brushes are wielded behind their closed doors? No pretty boy is safe from those vile beasts —”

White-knuckled, Ezio struck his knife half an inch into the table. The crimson Medici cape swirled as he rose and turned. But the speaker did not notice. Only his friends saw to their horror who had listened to them from a secluded corner of the tavern. Everyone in Venezia knew the young assassin, and of his friendship with maestro da Vinci.

Per amore di Cristo,” one of the men begged. “Shut your trap, man, if you want to live!”

The gondolier waved his sloshing tankard. “Shut yer own trap! Why would I keep silent of the truth? That dirty rottinculo should be hanged like the rest of his kind —”

Ale splashed across the floor as a cestus-covered hand grabbed the man by his collar, pulled him from the bench and slammed him against the wall. A woman screamed. Then all was still. The Fiorentino’s face, shadowed by a deep white hood, bent close to the gondolier's own.

Per favore,” Ezio said in the common tongue, his voice like velvet over a blade’s edge. “Speak. But lie, and it will be the last thing you do.”

The gondolier wetted his breeches, but did not faint. “È vero, è vero, assassino!” he cried, sobered by terror. “I swear by my honor! I got it all from my cousin. He’s a guard at the Palazzo della Signoria in Firenze. Ser da Vinci and two other men plowed a rented boy together. They spent two months in prison and were acquitted only because of family ties with the Medicis. It happened many years ago. You cannot kill me for telling the truth!”

Ezio bared his teeth. “Miserabile pezzo di merda... You speak of my brother, bastardo!” His fingers tightened on the gondolier’s throat. The man made a croaking sound, before making no sound at all. In panic he reached for his dagger, but Ezio caught his wrist, and the blade clattered to the floor.

Beneath the hood, Ezio’s face was a mask of rage. The gondolier started to turn a disturbing shade of purple.

Then, reluctantly, the assassin eased his grip. “Get out of my sight,” he muttered, and let go. The gondolier fell, coughing and wheezing, and crawled under the nearest table, relieved (and perhaps surprised) to have kept his life.

When Ezio turned, the other patrons backed away. No one ran; no one dared to cry for help. Fear stank up the place worse than the gondolier’s piss. Even the lusty wench who only moments ago had warmed his loins with bold glances now stared at him like he was death incarnate, hand frozen in a gesture to ward off evil.

No matter. He’d lost his appetite for her as thoroughly as for his food. Ezio retrieved his knife, tossed a couple of denari beside his plate on the table, and left.

The early winter chill of the lagoon city hung thick with the smell of canals and refuse. Ezio could almost taste the plague brewing in it, heavy and damp over the narrow streets crowded with people and animals. Beyond a corner, he scaled a wall to the top of a building, where wind blew away some of the stench and the evening sun could shine from between the clouds. After wandering the red rooftops for a moment, he was almost able to breathe again.

Ser da Vinci and two other men plowed a rented boy together. A disgusting, outrageous lie. Leonardo was the most honorable man Ezio knew. His thoughts moved in superlunary spheres, far from common people’s vulgar embarrassments. To Ezio’s best knowledge, his friend’s idea of debauchery was staying up till morning with a bottle of wine and too many sketching supplies. But why would the gondolier have lied? It was a heavy accusation. Both in Firenze and Venezia, mere allegations of unnatural conduct had condemned men to be pilloried or hanged. Leonardo had no enemies — no one would have profited from maligning him. His slanderer would have had to face the wrath of his patrons, the greatest of which was none other than the illustrious Lorenzo de’ Medici.

It had to be some kind of misunderstanding.

Ezio had intended to prowl the roofs without a destination, but soon he found himself standing over the small square in San Polo where Leonardo’s new workshop was located.

As usual those days, a flock of hopefuls had gathered behind the maestro’s door to pester his assistant for a moment of his time. Ezio had no intention of joining the crowd. He leaped from a roof to another. For a second his shadow fell among the people on the square. Some raised their heads, but he’d already dropped onto a balcony and blended in the shadow at its back.

He’d knocked on Leonardo’s door too often to remember. Now, for the first time, he hesitated. Why? As opposed to most nights, he even had a perfectly legitimate reason to come, in the form of an old parchment roll inside his coat — not that he really needed an excuse to visit his friend. And still he just stood there, unable to continue.

Suddenly the door opened. A man stepped into the sunlight at the other end of the balcony, athletic and taller than Ezio by several inches. Below on the square people cried out and pointed. The man bowed slightly, a palm held over his heart. His admirers cheered and a young signora fainted. “Oh dear,” the man sighed, drawing straight again, and patted his chalk-stained hands on the linen robe that protected his clothes. Perhaps he’d come to enjoy the evening sun after spending the whole day at work inside.

Ezio stood transfixed and stared at his friend’s clean-cut profile as if seeing it for the first time.

o o o

Fair hair is not completely unknown in Firenze, but usually it is the result of vanity and bleach. This man has clearly been blessed with it from birth. In the sun, his flowing tresses and short, neat beard shine like dark gold. His skin is light and freckled, unmarred by the pox, and he has the most unusual eyes, laughing and pale blue like the little Madonna’s eye flowers in Ezio’s mother’s garden. His face seems the kind that lends itself far more easily to joy and curiosity than somber sentiment.

He bends to kiss Madonna Maria’s cheeks and seems genuinely delighted to make her son’s acquaintance. He doesn’t look much more than twenty, but when he speaks, Ezio realizes he has to be older. Clearly a man leading a very healthy life, he’s well turned out in spotless half-boots, blue hose, a tall red sugarloaf hat and a pleated, belted tunic of maroon samite, with slits down the sleeves for fine white lawn to show. The growth of hair on his chin is nowhere near as fashionable as his clothes, for most gentlemen strive to keep their faces shaven, but Ezio admits that without it, he might seem almost too pretty.

Seventeen and used to running errands for his parents, Ezio thinks nothing of playing the part of a porter boy. He follows his mother and the da Vinci fellow the few blocks that separate Verrocchio’s workshop from the Auditore house. The painter sure likes to talk and Ezio’s mother seems uncharacteristically obliging. Ezio himself spends most of his time scanning the crowd for pretty girls, picking up only stray bits of conversation.

Soon a promising giggle catches his ear, but when he turns his head, ready to give the lucky ragazza his most charming smile, he sees that her attention is glued on the painter, instead. “Merda,” Ezio mutters, not used to competition. She’s an unusually fine specimen, too, a young gentildonna accompanied by an abbé and a few maidservants and friends. Ezio follows the direction of her eyes, expecting to see the painter smile back at her, but to his surprise the man just prattles on, completely oblivious. What thediavolo is he talking about? Water pipes? What does a painter know of engineering? And how on Earth can it be more important than the attentions of an eager, willing and beautiful young lady with breasts like two soft doves? Ezio sighs as they round a corner and the pretty noblewoman disappears from view.

Good looks are completely wasted on some people, Ezio thinks. He vows never to misuse his own.

When they arrive at the courtyard of Casa Auditore, he has a chance to take another look at the painter. He has to admit that the man is exceptionally handsome. No way has Verrocchio kept someone like that around to mix paint, prepare panels and scribble chubby putti at the edges of his paintings. That smile, above all else... Not that it has an effect on Ezio, who is a manly man, but it’s easy to see how it could affect some others. Well, at least with that kind of face and figure, female clients are bound to flock behind Ser da Vinci's door, even if he paints like a five-year-old. As if to prove the point, Ezio’s own mother appears abominably smitten, to her son’s bewilderment. She’s usually a very sensible woman.

“I’ve considered commissioning him for portraits of our family,” she says when the painter is gone. “But he has trouble finishing anything he’s started. He’s interested in far too many things to devote himself to one project.”

“I see,” Ezio says. “Sounds like he isn’t satisfied with just one outlet, either.”

“Sfacciato!” She swats her smart-mouthed son with a fan, but cannot completely conceal her amused smile.

Later Ezio helps to hang the paintings in the gallery. His mother tells him that at her behest, one of them has been mostly painted by da Vinci. Over the next days, Ezio finds himself coming back to watch that piece in awe, ashamed of his suspicion of the man’s talent. From the marriage of wood to linseed oil, pigment and turpentine, angels with secretive smiles look back, more beautiful than anything he’s ever seen.

“Ezio! Benvenuto! Why do you stand there so silent, scimmietta?

Few would have dared to call a killer of Ezio’s reputation a little monkey, but the greatest painter in Italy was not bothered by such trivialities.

Mi dispiace. You must be busy.” The words sounded like a crow’s cry to Ezio’s ears. For a long while Leonardo had seemed ignorant of his presence, and he’d hoped things would remain so, but then the maestro had suddenly turned his way.

Leonardo shook his head in bewilderment. It was not like Ser Ezio Auditore da Firenze to apologize for his existence. For six years, they had been brothers in all but blood. “What? Nonsense. Avanti, avanti.” He turned and went back inside.

It would have been unthinkable to decline.