Fiumenze Nights - Session One: Death of an Artist
Gatto and Barzilai had just finished breakfast when the body fell out of the sky.
It was early in the morning in the Plaza del Duomo, but already the square was full of bustling people heading to their works, surrounded the calls of street vendors hawking their wares. The slanted morning sunlight promised that this would be another in a succession of sweltering hot days, and the stink of the river was already noticeable. Come sweltering midday, it would be almost unbearable. Gatto, a young catfolk, newly arrived in Fiumenze, and this was his first day as commander of the sbirri, the city’s poorly-funded, poorly-resourced and poorly-paid civic watch. Not that he had known this when he had enlisted. He had been partnered with Barzilai, who was now showing his new commander the ropes. Barzilai was a cynical, worn-down veteran who had served under a number of commanders, each one incompetent, corrupt or (more likely) both. He had been passed over for promotion to commander himself for the unfortunate fact of his being a dwarf. This was unfortunately normal for the sbirri. They were overseen by the gonfaloniere di giustizia, a public official who was chosen by lot every thirty days. In theory, this was to prevent corruption; in practice, it meant someone who did not know or care about how the sbirri operated, and had no interest in its long-term success.
And so Barzilai was showing his new commander around the city, and wondering how long he would last. Gatto, meanwhile, was feeling overwhelmed by the size and number of people in the city. They paused in their tour to grab breakfast from a street vendor: a bowl of pasta, a food newly introduced to Tirenia by traders; and paused in the shadow of the grand cathedral with its magnificent almost-finished dome to eat. As they finished, they noticed a commotion around them. People were pointing up in horror at the scaffolding on the top of the cathedral as a man fell from it. His body struck the side of the side of the dome and bounced twice. It seemed to keep falling forever, before it suddenly struck the cobblestones with a wet noise. People screamed, and hurried over for a closer look. Gatto and Barzilai dropped their empty bowls and hurried over with them.
While Gatto tried (in vain) to control the crowds, Barzilai examined the scene of the crime. The corpse was in horrific condition after the fall, but the dwarf could see large purple bruise marks entirely encircling the neck. That, and the angle of the fall, suggested that this man was thrown down, rather than falling on his own. The man was also missing several fingernails - were they torn free while trying to resist? They looked up and saw the shape of a man disappearing from the scaffolding back inside the cathedral. Immediately, Gatto sprang up on to the side of the immense building and began to scale it, moving swiftly with the preternatural grace of the catfolk. Barzilai looked after him, shook his head, and began jogging towards the front doors. Perhaps they’d catch the killer between them.
The vast cathedral was cool and dark, with only beams of light stabbing into the nave through the stained-glass windows. In the centre, massive wooden scaffolding reached up to the almost-finished dome. Dust floated silently through the warm light. Gatto moved down the levels of scaffolding into the dark interior, his feline eyes making it easy for him to see. So when a tall, green-cloaked form burst out of hiding and rushed him in the dark, the catfolk was not caught by surprise. Instead, he reacted instinctively, turning the killer’s momentum against him. He saw a pallid, rough, unfinished looking face inside the hood, and then the man was hurtling off the edge of the scaffolding to hit the ground some ten feet below. To Gatto’s shock, however, the killer staggered to his feet. He seemed only dazed by a fall that could have killed him!
In that moment in which the killer was dazed, Barzilai sprang out, his truncheon in his hand. “Stop! Sbirri!” he shouted. The green-cloaked man spun and threw a punch at him, and Barzilai ducked, then cracked the killer sharply across the back with his club. The force of the blow seemed to barely faze him, but the truncheon was almost jarred out of the dwarf’s hand. The next punch connected: Barzilai was flung back, and the breath huffed out of him as he slammed into a column. Meanwhile, Gatto dropped down to the ground floor with feline grace. Seeing how strong the killer was, he drew out his crossbow, notched a bolt, and fired. Barzilai staggered up and drew his crossbow too. They fired several shots, but the green-cloaked man with the strange face half-ran, half-staggered to the church and escaped into the morning crowd. They had lost him.
The two sbirri staggered around the corner - Barzilai groaning from his injuries - back to the body, which had gained quite a crowd now. They took the body into the Cathedral. Hopefully someone here would know who it was. After the fighting in the cathedral, people were emerging, led by Fra Gottifredo, a priest in an ornate dressing gown. “That’s Michele di Lodovico!” he exclaimed. Michele di Lodovico was the genius artist and architect who had designed the dome. Two years ago he had won a competition to receive the contract. Gatto asked if anything unusual had happened lately, and Fra Gottifredo told him that Michele had been spending less time at the cathedral lately to oversee the construction, and asked if he could receive his monthly payment in advance. Most unusually, however, Michele had recently given Gottifredo an invitation to a private event, to take place that evening. It would be some sort of art exhibition, and the great artist had invited many guests.
At this point it was midmorning, and the workmen had arrived and started repairing the damaged scaffolding. The sbirri questioned Fabrizio, the foreman. He was quite upset, as he had worked with Michele on many projects, and asked Gatto and Barzilai to help him get revenge on the killer personally - they refused. However, he was able to give them the address of Michele’s workshop, which he shared with his model and partner Tommaso di Cecchino. He also told them that Michele had a rival, another artist called Bartolomeo di Baccio. This was very useful, and they thanked Fabrizio before leaving. However, they could not help but feel that Fabrizio knew more than he was telling them…
Back in the now-crowded piazza, the two talked over what they had discovered, and started making plans for where to go next, when a child ran up to them and gave them a letter. It was sealed with blue wax, showing the sign of a dragon coiled around a pezzo d’oro. This was the sign of Zaffiro ‘il Magnifico’, the powerful dragon banker who everyone knew was the de facto ruler of the city. It was a letter summoning them to the Palazzo di Signoria to discuss the case. No one could ignore a letter from Zaffiro il Magnifico: they went to the Palazzo at once. There, after a short wait, they were ushered in to meet a conservatively dressed woman. Her name was Antonia Ficino. She did not say what her role was, but Gatto and Barzilai understood that she was an important agent of the dragon. She had heard about Michele’s death, and was concerned that there might be a political angle. Very soon, the representatives of the Tirenian League, an alliance of northern city-states, would be gathering in Fiumenze. There had recently been upheaval in Vanzenia, the canal city to the north-east, and now its new ruler was marshalling her forces to invade her neighbours. The League would be meeting to discuss an alliance against Vanzenian aggression. The completed dome was supposed to be a symbol of Fiumenze’s wealth for the delegates. Was someone trying to sabotage its completion? She charged the pair with dealing with the problem as quickly and quietly as possible, and offered them a new lead: she had heard that Michele di Lodovico had been borrowing large amounts of money from Jeraboam ben Nebaioth, a dwarven moneylender.
Gatto’s first day on the job was looking more complicated than he had expected...
Art: 'View of Florence.' Carl Gustav Carus, 1841.