The Carnival at Perugia is a rather dull affair. The Bishop will only condone so much competition for his whores, and the local children only visit it at night to rattle the cages. It is more a collection of tepid curios, such as the two-headed kitten, or the talking bird. It has had a number of homes but is at present positioned adjacent to the torturous trickle of the Fontana Maggiore.
Perugia would appear to be a town after Pistoa’s heart. The Carnival here is overseen by two wizened old Tajiks with smiles like cuts who seem to pass their days tapping at the rows of bamboo cages in a vain attempt to raise a sullen growl from the mangy, wall-eyed occupants. That the Bishop condones this travesty at all is only due to the fact that now and then one of those strange creatures arrives from the steppes, each one a little bigger and more horrid than the last, to pique his much-lauded scientific curiosity and perhaps arouse the fleeting interest of the townsmen.
I know of only two other towns whose garrisons have allowed these creatures inside their walls – Lucca and Spoleto – and neither town has fared well by it. The hideous spectacle of these creatures, the lurid tales of them tearing entire caravans to shreds on the Magyar plains, attracts a gawking rabble from miles around, and inevitably some village simpleton will be goaded into lifting the latch on one of these ferocious, terrified things, with horrific results, especially at Spoleto, where it was said the streets ran red for days.
The Bishop at Perugia takes no such risks with his congregation and has pulled many strings with the Chinese to have their local armourers forge a steel cage that he has hoisted twenty yards above the square whenever one of these pit-eyed, hapless things happens his way. One must always consider the sergeant of the watch. From there the only danger the creature poses is if some drunken soul trying to evade the watch happens to pass under it as it is voiding, for I hear its waste can scald the flesh like lime.
We have been asked to look over the pinions and rigging, and also to satisfy ourselves as to the integrity of the iron bars against which the last of these creatures beat its brains out. For it is rumoured that the town burghers have paid for another one to be brought inside the walls to deal with the dogs. As journeymen we hear nothing but rumours.
It is rumoured, for instance, that they cannot abide closed spaces and will not cross a threshold if there are more than three candles burning inside. But such knowledge, if knowledge it is, must have been acquired through the most arduous system of trial and error, and I for one would not like to test the theory.
The Chinese will not let us leave until we have been paid. It seemed an oppressive system at first, and one that seemed to single out journeymen, but over time we have all learnt to see the sense in it. If we are not paid, then we cannot produce the receipts that are our pass out of the gates. And if we cannot leave the town, then we soon become a burden until the required payment and receipt is forthcoming. Our kind do not bring any more coins into a town than we can leave with. At the gate, of course, the Chinese take their cut, but who would begrudge them such a tax for such a service? They too issue a receipt. In fact my bag is a clatter of these little chits like the footsteps of my life.
For all that, the Bishop cannot be found and we must wait while someone finds him, for he is a busy man and his whores, too, must have their chits. At the hour appointed by one of his minions I wait by the Cathedral steps along with young Francesco who knows his abacus like a second pair of knuckles, and although we wait until it is dark, no-one comes to meet us but an escort kindly sent by the sergeant of the watch to see us back to the tavern where the dogs have scratched deep grooves in the wide oak door and left a litter of fourteen pups no bigger than a man’s thumb that the old Chinese sentries carry around under their jackets like a new heart.
Tonight they returned, no more numerous or vicious than they were yesterday, but obviously in search of their pups and the skinny old bitch that bled out on the steps of the Cathedral after bearing them. There are three young girls with a pup each here, and no-one and nothing will separate them. Pistoa has one that he holds closer than I have ever seen him hold anything, which leaves ten of the litter gone under old men’s coats to the barracks and beyond. The way those dogs are sniffing at the tavern door, though, they mean to find them.
Pistoa has often screamed for a sword when he is drunk, but this time he means the kind the Chinese confiscated in every town and village and handed back as coin to every man, woman and child. In the east the sword brandishes a sound it does not brandish here. I sleep through the worst of it, for unlike spendthrifts such as Pistoa I have money for a straw mattress and a pillow. Even the running battle he and his drunken cohorts fought with the mangy remnants of the pack up and down the narrow defiles of the sestiere did not wake me. I have a clear conscience and I grab sleep where I can find it.
Needless to say Pistoa is in no sort of mood for haggling with a fat priest the following day, so I take what I think is a fair price for his rushed work on the portico, doff my cap to a boy almost buckling under the weight of his accounts, and begin to sort the chits for the men who cannot read.
“That fat pig can’t even be bothered to see if he’s done us a favour,” Pistoa scowls as he drops those coins like watchmen’s chains into his tired sack. “You’re a priest, who was that the bells announced before?”
Sometimes I think the joke about my name has yet to wear off on Pistoa because he has suspended his judgment on it. Either he is trying to rile me like a schoolboy, or he is struggling with the urge to confess something to the last man in the world who would understand. Or working. Needless to say, it is only the latter that puts me at ease. I tell him to go look for himself, but judging by the clash of cymbals and the sad gaggle of trumpets it is someone from the east come via La Spezia, come like the rich and powerful have come since the pirates disappeared to see for themselves whether the rumours about us are true. Fat, ashen-faced men with their jowly wives and supple concubines come to lay their coins at our altars and shout their names at the impossible arches and gauge their fortunes by the number of echoes.
“Let’s go see for ourselves. Drink it down, eh priest.”
He is like this whenever one of their litters pass, be it some screw-eyed hoary scholar or a pretty merchant’s child-bride, meeting their eye with the same look he would pass over a block of stone before he begins to carve, a look the Chinese excuse because their devils are all paper and because the Carnival has this effect on some.
Pistoa has gone south on some vague promise of work from one of the Bishop’s men. He left with a strange halting gait and that newly-acquired bundle squirming under his jacket. Perhaps he is having second thoughts about keeping it. Second thoughts may be all those dogs were seeking inside the town that abandoned them to the winter nights and those strange creatures from the steppes. Francesco noticed Pistoa’s strange manner too, for as we headed north back to Arezzo I could feel him trying to find a way of broaching the subject without bringing down my famous curses on his head. I have only recently become aware of this reputation I have amongst the apprentices, and I am still at a loss to explain it. I speak when spoken to and find the world too changed, too changeable, to paw over the details of a brother’s walk.
I used to think Pistoa shared my feelings, but that was all a long time ago, many cold greetings ago on the road out of Dragon Pass. I now realize Pistoa is a man too constant, too wedded to his time, whatever times they may end up being, to have ever looked down and wondered whose feet they are that keep passing under him. For all his proclivities, or perhaps because of them, Pistoa is a man accepted by all and sundry, whether Christian or heathen. Perhaps because he takes the world as he finds it, and knows how to seal a contract with a day before he has even opened his eyes.