It was a lovely late Fall afternoon when she visited my shop. A nervous looking girl, young and plain.
"Did I get the right shop? I mean… are you Leonardo da Vinci?"
"That I am. What brings someone like yourself to my shop?" Truly, an embarrassing sight. Sketches and art supplies scattered about the room, and an unfinished painting hanging on the easel behind me.
"I was told to come to extend an invitation."
"I see… well, what kind of invitation is it?" I can feel time pass while the woman appears to be collecting her thoughts, possibly planning her next words.
"The family has… established an academy of some sorts. A collection of philosophers, artists, doctors, and others… all of which possessing certain sets of skills."
"We feel as though a mind like yours would be exactly what is needed at the Academy. Will you accept?"
"You haven't even told me what this 'academy' is… and why did you say 'we?'" Now is not the time to be getting caught up in something that is too good to be true. I have yet to establish myself as anything in Florence, and the idea of an 'academy' wanting me seems odd.
"The Garden of the Piazza San Marco. You must have heard of it." Her eyes narrow.
"Indeed, I have. But why would the Medici family be interested in somebody just starting out?" I question. The woman pauses again.
"Don't lie to me. You qualified as a master in the Guild of Saint Luke years ago," she snaps.
"What else do you know about me?"
"Much more- My lady knows much more than you think."
"And tell me, is your Lady Clarice Orsini herself?"
"Yes." She pauses. "She also says you're in no position to turn down a patron."
"…" She has me there. "So she wishes to meet me?"
"She wishes for you to join the Academy."
"I suppose I should at least visit. Lead the way… I don't believe I caught your name."
"Oh, it's Taddea."
"Right, well, lead on Taddea."
The Medicis truly do have more money than one could possibly know what to do with, and the sprawling villa before me serves as proof of just that. Taddea pulls me through the house like a horse on a lead until we reach a back garden. My fingers itch for a sketchbook and pencils until I see somebody is already here. Not only is she dressed like a noblewoman, she carries herself like one.
"Tadd, you brought him. I'm delighted. Did you tell him what we do here?" she says. This has to be her. Clarice Orsini. Taddea shakes her head.
"No, my lady, I din't."
"You might as well come along while I give the tour." She turns to me. "Apologies, my husband is out on business at the moment, along with most of the Academy, but I believe you'll still get an idea of what it is we do here." She walks, and Taddea follows without having been given a single order, still pulling me along.
"If you choose to stay, you'll find you'll want for nothing. My husband will pay for anything you could possibly need or want, so long as it's related to what we do here. Of course, you'll live here, but that should hardly be a problem. Your stipend, however, will depend on how much you contribute to the Academy and its goals. Am I understood so far?" she says, back turned to me the entire time.
"Yes… May I ask what it is the Academy's goals are?"
"It'd be so much more simple to show you. Tadd, the door please." The waif of a girl takes a large iron key, and unlocks the door to a back building I hadn't noticed before. It looks like a stable, but wasn't there one elsewhere? Inside, something roars, and I step back. The two women, on the other hand, do nothing.
"He can't get to you. The cage is too good."
"Cage? What do you have that needs to be kept in a cage? What does it have to do with medicine or art?" I slowly walk in, scientific curiosity getting the better of me.
Cage is an understatement. It seems like this entire building was modified to keep in one creature. Standing at six and a half feet tall is… a Minotaur.
"And he's only the beginning. Not everything at the Academy is this… large, but all are things that shouldn't exist. Shouldn't be here. Yet they do. The Academy has two goals, Leonardo. To collect these objects and specimens, and to study them." Lady Clarice presents this with pride.
"… There's more?"
"Much more." The lady smiles.
So much goes through my mind. This morning, a Minotaur seemed impossible. And yet here one is right in front of me. Living, breathing… snorting angrily. And they tell me it's not the only thing like it that they have? The artist in me wants to capture all of it in its true form, to preserve its image for all time. The scientist in me wants to study its movements and actions. And if it truly isn't the only thing that shouldn't exist yet does that is here…
"Wonderful. Tad, I believe it's feeding time for our dear Minotaur. If you will see to that while I make the arrangements for Leonardo to move in, that would be much appreciated." The younger girl does as she's bid, while I stare in awe at the beast.
"Follow her! Really, for someone supposed to be a genius you really are a fool." Taddea hisses, shoveling in some hay and oats for the beast that had my attention for so long. I look around to realize Lady Clarice had left the stable.
My first few weeks are a whirlwind of discovering one strange and wonderful artifact after another. The Medicis have an astounding collection, though I can't make heads or tails of where these things could have come from, or how they could have possibly been brought to Florence, all without anybody noticing. The Minotaur, I learned, came in from Crete in the middle of Summer, and had to be kept asleep for the duration of its journey to the villa. In these weeks I had hardly spared a thought to those I had and had not met outside of those deemed part of the Academy. Lady Clarice and Taddea had been invaluable in my study of these artifacts and creatures that had captivated my mind so thoroughly. I had nearly filled a book with my anatomical studies of the Minotaur, capturing the image of a statue that was so lifelike it did in fact move, despite being made of cold marble, all done by the light of a fire that could never go out and was said to have been brought down by Prometheus himself. I thanked every god that had ever been worshiped for this opportunity given to me by the Medici family, all before having met Lord Lorenzo, who was supposedly out on business. Nobody would tell me exactly what.
"Uh… Leo?" Tadd pops her head into my room.
"Hm?" I look up from the rough beginnings of a sketch of a mechanical arm, wanting to capture some of the magic these objects held for myself.
"Lord Lorenzo's home… He'd like to meet you… You might want to bring your book." I close the one I had been working in, and grab the one I had just finished filling that morning, and follow Tadd to an office of sorts. Inside is Lady Clarice and a man I can only assume is Lorenzo de'Medici. The banker and Lord of Florence has a somewhat welcoming expression attempting to blanket what must normally be a serious face.
"Ah, you must be Leonardo. Welcome to the Garden of the Piazza San Marco. My wife tells me you have been living with us for a few weeks now."
"Ah, yes my lord. I've been enjoying every minute of it. You have quite the collection here."
"Of course I do. Sandro, Domenico, and Pietro produce so much art. It's almost impossible to find places to put all of it." He laughs. "Come now, let me see your work."
I do as I'm bid, and hand over the filled sketchbook. It was one I had began before joining the Academy, and its early pages full of figure studies and drafts of portraits show it. He stops at a page I had marked. My first sketch of the Minotaur.
"What an interesting subject. I never would have taken you as one for old myths." It is at this point Lady Clarice sighs.
"Lorenzo, he knows," she says flatly. He immediately looks over at his wife.
"You told him?" He does not look happy at all.
"As I already tried to tell you, he's more than another artist to add to your collection. This is a man of science as well. He's already proven to be eager to at least attempt to understand what we really do here. Look further, you'll see. You'll understand why I had to do it." She explains rather calmly. Lord Lorenzo continues looking through my work, his face unreadable.
"And what do you think of what we do here?" he asks, after a long pause.
"I'm… honestly, it's like seeing an entirely new world."
"And you're not frightened?"
"Nowhere near as frightened as I am fascinated." I reply. Lord Lorenzo stands, and hands my sketchbook back to me.
"Then I suppose I should show you my latest acquisition. Come." He walks out of the room with a determination and a purpose, occasionally checking to make sure nobody but Lady Clarice or I am following him. This time I'm lead to a wine cellar with a secret back room dimly lit by the lantern Lord Lorenzo handed me. He pries the lid of a crate open, and beacons me over. Inside is what appears to be a Grecian statue of a young woman, its dull shine indicating it is solid gold.
"Meet Princess Zoe."
"Another moving statue?" I ask.
"No, a living one. Feel her pulse." He puts my hand on the statue's neck, and I'm surprised to feel a faint pulse. Not only that, but it's warm. I touch its arm to be sure it's not residual heat from Lord Lorenzo, but it too gives off a slight amount of heat. Dull, seemingly lifeless eyes peer back at me, unmoving. Unlike the other moving statue, they have no depth, two solid orbs of gold.
"The daughter of King Midas," he says proudly, "not as dead as the myths make her out to be."
"And you call this life?"
"No, I say it's not death. There's no way of knowing whether or not she's actually alive in there. Or at least I have no way of knowing. But you… You're a man of medicine and science. It shouldn't be too hard for you to figure it out." He pats me on the back.
"How am I supposed to determine if it's alive?"
"I wouldn't know, I'm not the doctor here. But you are. I'm going to take my leave and see what the others in the Academy are up to. You, my friend, should stay here and get to know her a bit more." Lord Lorenzo leaves, Lady Clarice following closely after him. I'm briefly told how to close up the secret panel before they leave me alone with this golden girl.