Galileo’s revenge:  An excerpt from Chapter Two

[Ch.2.2 The Duke has collapsed at the hunt feast, where Galileo encountered his rival Cavaliere Font. Galileo and a couple of companions are now riding back to the Medici villa. On their way through the forest they find young Don Antonio, the Duke’s son and heir, collecting mushrooms.]

A small basket, surrounded by a scattering of funghi, lay overturned at the edge of the clearing. Galileo helped the lad to gather them up. A few minutes later Galileo was ambling back towards the villa with the young prince seated on the saddle in front of him. Salviati and Professor Mercuriale, deep in conversation, had dropped some fifty paces back. The boy’s sister, the Countess Pellegrina, had probably sought to distract him from his father’s distress by sending him off to forage in the woods. Now, of course, Mercuriale had blandly reassured him that all was well, that it was merely an excess of excitement and wine, no more. Either way, Don Antonio seemed unperturbed.

Somebody, some poor equerry, Galileo guessed, would suffer for having forgotten or abandoned the young prince. But for Galileo the chance to become better acquainted with Don Antonio was most welcome – as he’d said to Salviati, the boy would need a tutor in the quadriviumbefore he was much older. And so, as they rode along, Galileo entertained the prince with an account, much indebted to Orlando Furioso, of Astolfo’s flight to the Moon to recover Orlando’s lost wits. Astronomy didn’t have to be dull.

Not half way home, as they were passing through a thickly overgrown part of the wood, a man stepped out from behind a tree, not ten paces in front of them. Galileo’s nag shied away from the man and came to a halt. The man carried a crossbow, already raised to his shoulder. For a moment or two Galileo took him to be one of the hunters straggling home, or even an over-zealous guard in search of Don Antonio. But his clothing was too rough to be a guard’s. And the bow was levelled at the two of them.

The man did not seem disposed to initiate any of the conventional ‘Hand over your purse’ pecuniary negotiations. Salviati and the Professor must still be out of sight round the last bend. Galileo knew that the villain was about to shoot. Consequently and – he reassured himself later – understandably, Galileo twisted his body sideways, holding Don Antonio tightly in front of himself as a shield. The bowman hesitated for a moment before stepping briskly sideways and taking aim again.

There was the unmistakeable twang of a bow-string being released, and the bow jerked. The bowman’s eyes widened in surprise; his attention seemed to be caught by something entrancing in the trees behind Galileo and Don Antonio. Another atom of time and he squeezed the trigger and his bow loosed a bolt that whirred like a demented partridge inches past Galileo’s ear.

A cross-bow with twobolts? Where had the first bolt lodged? Jesus, not in Don Antonio!But the bowman knew. He dropped his bow to the ground, and raised his hands quite cautiously to his neck – through which the first bolt had neatly struck. In staccato stages and small gurgles the would-be assassin sank to his knees.

Galileo was still trying to work out what possible misfire could have lodged a bolt in the man’s own neck, when Giovanni walked out from the bushes, shouldering his own bow.

‘Been following him,’ said the Huntsman matter-of-factly. ‘I wondered what he was up to. Couldn’t let young Antonio be shot, could we? Accidentally or otherwise,’ he added and winked at the prince.

‘Hardly a bloody accident,’ said Galileo hysterically, as Salviati and Mercuriale galloped towards them. ‘Anyhow, what about him?’ nodding at the bravostill choking and now scrabbling with his fingers at the ground.

Giovanni shrugged. ‘Not local.’

Galileo dismounted unsteadily and went to crouch beside the man, trying to keep his boots out of the spreading pool of blood.

‘Who sent you?’ he demanded.

The man’s eyes opened and he stared at Galileo with weary contempt. ‘Count,’ he mumbled indistinctly, and closed his eyes again.

‘Count? Count what? Count who?’

The man’s eyes opened once more; he tried to draw breath but choking was overcome by spasmodic, gasping convulsion. He went limp.

Galileo turned to Giovanni. ‘Did he say “count”? What “count”? Might it have been “Font”?’

Giovanni stared at him impassively for some seconds. ‘“Cunt”,’ said the Huntsman at last. ‘He said “cunt”. Move out the way so’s I can get the bolt back. It’s my lucky bolt.’

Galileo lurched to his feet and stumbled to the side of the track to be sick.