He has seen the man’s artistry before, sat among that silent banquet in thought and darkness. King Ferrante’s hall was notorious but as the king’s. Fame did not attach itself to the name of the man who worked within it.
He has lingered among those who work in the great houses of the rich and he knows their lives.
He has observed how the man asked no questions, never looked too long or too closely, kept his conversation succinct. He knew from the beginning that the man knew him for what he was without being told. Something marks those who work amidst death. Nicodemo Corsus was another easy to recognise in turn.
It is not a matter of liking but of understanding and it is an understanding that is not a threat to him. The taxidermist understands silence.
Michelotto judged him an able informant: close enough to the king to learn his intentions, poor enough to be bribed, sharp enough to be both alert and discreet.
Nicodemo says nothing of himself. He gives very little away but rooms tell stories. His workroom tells of death and preservation, anatomy and art, science and torture, medicine and astrology. There are many kinds of knowledge here, some kinds that even Michelotto does not possess. The room is strange and familiar in parts. Like his, Nicodemo’s is a profession that lends itself to isolation. The powerful will always have need of someone to do the dark things that they cannot and they pay well. And yet the world is not for them, not for death’s professionals. In the days that he has waited in the city and the castle and this room no one has come to it but them. He has no friends to whom he might betray this transaction.
Among the drawings and the tools and the knives, among the curved needles and twine, among the bottles of substances he knows and some he has never used: he finds himself here, the tools of another’s craft cold and smooth in his hands. He envies that knowledge, that learning. He admires those with particular knowledge of death. Those such as Nicodemo and himself live in the shadows and in the shadows their spheres may shift but Michelotto will always remember the other here with all the expertise of his craft.
In due course he himself must return to Rome. Nicodemo must not accompany the king there should it also be his destination. The meetings between them must be brief – his time in Naples must be brief – or he will have no choice in the matter. It is safer for both of them that Nicodemo remains away from Rome.
He can not only spare the man but give him freedom such as he would not otherwise have: such as he himself does not yet have and may never have.
Michelotto knows that by letting him go he is putting himself in the taxidermist’s power. He knows he is leaving himself open and Nicodemo will know it too. Nicodemo could probably kill him if he wanted to. He could certainly betray him if he wanted to. He might prove useful again. He might prove dangerous.
Nicodemo is wise to distrust him yet, wiser than Michelotto is to break his own rules for him. When the man enters he evidently half expects death. There is no one here but them. Fear is useful. It will protect them both.
He trusts the man just enough, just enough to risk him alive. It is not like him to take such a risk. It is not like him to trust a stranger. He does not believe in friendship, not for himself.
Nicodemo is not like Augustino. Is not like any of his lovers.
There are no others of my kind, he said, once.
They must never meet again.