“The Little Duchess” by Julia August
The last time Baldesar di Casatico saw the woman who threw down the northern wall of Florens, she was making her way back between the tombs outside the city. A cartload of cloth had been upset under the North Gate and it was going to take time to clear the way, even with Baldesar’s retainers to move the spectators along. He adjusted his hat, then his gloves, then patted his horse’s neck when she indicated her customary mistrust of lapdogs. An elderly lady in white widow’s veils deigned to bend her haughty head. Her perfume caught him in the throat as she stalked past.
It was strong stuff, as cloying as the nostalgia that had already begun to color how Baldesar saw the city. He waved it away, grimacing. “Come on, come on,” he muttered. “What’s taking so long?”
Past the red-faced carters bawling obscenities at each other, he could see the woods bursting into fresh spring green over the sunlit hills. The Aemilian Road sprawled out across the broken landscape like a satiated snake, its head rising lazily somewhere on the slopes, broad and rutted and thick with mud. A queue of disgruntled farmers was forming outside the gate.
He was about to send one of his companions to break up the quarrel. “Messer Clemente,” he began to say, turning in his saddle, and from the corner of his eye glimpsed something that made him glance back.
It took him a moment to realize what he had seen. No one else had hair as pale as that in Florens. Clemente degli Montelli looked expectant. “Signor?”
Absently, Baldesar patted his horse’s neck again.
“Never mind,” he said, dismounting. “Stay here.”
He shouldered through the drama at the North Gate, where the mob was too occupied to pay much attention to anything else. Only Baldesar seemed to have noticed the towheaded woman walking between the ancient, overgrown tombs alongside the Aemilian Road. It felt unreal. He could have surrounded himself with his entourage and ordered them to ride hard for the hills as soon as the way was clear, he realized. But it was her.
She was wearing crimson, as she had been when Baldesar first met her. He found his feet beginning to drag. In nine years, she hadn’t aged a day.
She wasn’t smiling; but then, she seldom did. He grasped a headstone. He might have known, he thought. Ambitious courtiers, like their princes, seldom got to enjoy a peaceful retirement. He might have realized there would be no escape.
The headstone was shaking, or he was.
“Anna,” he said.
The last time Baldesar di Casatico had thought he would see the woman who threw down the northern wall of Florens, the North Gate had been a heap of fresh rubble strewn with dust and Floralia flowers. Pietro da Cignano, newly installed as Duke of Florens, had decreed that the last days of the festival would be celebrated, despite the turbulence of his return. The duke’s hired soldiers, at least, had enjoyed themselves.
She hadn’t made a fuss when Baldesar had taken her from the Palazzo Ducale. Honestly, he was surprised she was still there. He had expected Pietro to have the woman hurriedly poisoned; or, failing that, for someone to leave the door open one dark night and for the Room of Lilies to be found empty in the morning. He would have left a horse at one of the side doors himself.
But the gold-and-blue room was still locked and there she still was, combing out her hair. “When I’ve done this,” she said, not looking up. “Then I’ll come.”
Baldesar wiped the sweat from around his mouth, where his beard was growing back. “Very well, monna.”
She let him lead her through the city to a property expropriated from the traitor Michelotto di Tacco, who could thank his guardian spirit that he had ended up in exile, rather than in pieces in the piazza before the Palazzo Ducale. Set well back in an unruly garden screened off by cypresses stood a white house with barred windows and, at the end of a passage, a barred inner courtyard. Baldesar unlocked the gate.
“If you would, monna.”
She let go of him. He almost stepped backwards; he couldn’t quite convince himself she was intimidated by the contract-soldiers with whom Gian Martello, who had taken over the company and the duke’s contract after Captain Fabrizio’s unexpected death, had filled the streets and garden.
“It’s been prepared for you,” he said. “On the duke’s orders.”
The downstairs rooms along the front of the house were already occupied with guards and servants. “Very well,” she said, as if this was a matter of complete indifference to her. “Tell Pietro I want to talk to him.”
“Certainly, monna,” said Baldesar, although he had never been surer of anything than that the new duke would do no such thing. He had never once known Pietro to give a moment’s thought to a discarded mistress and in this case guilt alone should keep the duke away. “Immediately.”
She was looking around the courtyard, which had been swept that morning. When Baldesar swung the iron gate shut on her, she glanced back and watched him relock it. “Farewell,” he said, a prickle of sweat running down his spine. He felt her gaze follow him down the passage as he hurried out.
In the garden, the midday sun shortened the interlaced shadows of the cypresses. Baldesar sat down on the warm stone steps with a jolt. He should have had gates installed at both ends of the passage. The lock should have been bigger. He should have arranged for Anna to be poisoned himself.
It was her coolness behind the bars Baldesar was seeing, and the flash of contempt she had shown when he had first arrested her for Fabrizio Colonna’s murder. He remembered the husk of a body falling from the captain’s saddle, so withered Baldesar could only think the life must have been sucked out of it, and how the ground had shuddered as the great wall came down.
But he had locked the gate on her. He got up unsteadily. All of that, he thought, was done.
It must have been months later, since even the duke had taken to strolling around Florens with only a token bodyguard, when Baldesar, returning half-drunk from some party or another, felt a whisper of silk brush past and put out his hand unthinkingly. “Let go,” he heard a familiar cold voice say.
He let go as if burnt. He had a boy with a torch to light the way; all the same, it was a moment or so before his cloudy head cleared enough to see her. “Anna?”
She was dressed like a student, all in faded black. “Oh,” she said, pulling her glove back on. It was black too, but too finely made for a student’s, and delicately patterned with black Mediolan lace. “It’s you.”
Baldesar had seen those gloves before. “Anna?” he said again, incredulously.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’ve been to see the wall. It’s coming on quite well.”
Restoring the northern wall had been the new duke’s first priority. “How?” Baldesar demanded. “Who let you out?” He looked around frantically. “Where are your guards? You’re under house arrest!”
“I let myself out. Did you really think I’d let someone else put me in a prison I couldn’t leave?”
He tugged at his beard with a shaking hand. “How did you do it? I’ll tell Pietro.”
“Pietro gave me the key,” said Anna, almost pityingly. “He thought you’d be happier if you didn’t know.”
It came back to Baldesar where he had last seen her gloves: wrapped up with linen and string in a parcel lying open on the duke’s writing-desk. The revelation knocked the breath out of him. “I suppose he might be irritated if you tell him,” she added. “He wanted me to be careful. That’s why I go out at night.”
“Pietro wants the walls to be really unbreakable this time. I said I’d help.”
The story was going round that the witch shut up in the cypress-shaded house sent her spirit abroad at night by the time Baldesar went there again. The cypresses had been tamed by whoever had put a scythe to the lawn and the door was opened by Pasquino, who had been Pietro da Cignano’s man almost from childhood.
“Signor Baldesar!” Pasquino exclaimed, with every evidence of delight. “Did you come to see the signora?”
Baldesar edged inside. “Yes. Yes, I suppose so. Didn’t you just get married?”
“Fancy you knowing that,” said Pasquino, beaming. “Simona’s the housekeeper here. I’ll have her bring you some of these little cakes she makes while you wait.”
“No, no, I don’t expect to be here long. How is it, serving Monna Anna?”
Pasquino shrugged. “Quiet, signor. The signora doesn’t get many visitors, except for his Highness, of course. She wants some odd things. But she never gives any trouble.”
He let Baldesar into the inner courtyard with a flourish. Baldesar hadn’t known what to expect, although the duke had told him not to look so unhappy, because there was nothing to fear. Having some idea of Anna’s interests, Baldesar would not have been surprised to find a dissection table heaped with discarded organs. In the courtyard, though, there was only a table with some books, and if one of the upper salons had been turned into a private anatomical theatre Baldesar saw no sign of it. He did observe several valuable bronzes previously glimpsed in Duke Pietro’s private quarters, each of which caused him a sting of indignation. The tapestries had certainly cost a fortune too.
It was a few moments before Anna emerged from a workroom, brushing her hands on the stained leather apron she wore over an exceptionally beautiful blue Mediolan gown. Her expression, never easy to read, was more than usually forbidding. “What do you want?”
“His Highness requested me to bring you a letter, monna.”
Her coldness intensified. “Did he,” she said, and let it fall to the floor. As an afterthought, she stepped on it. “Is that all?”
Baldesar remembered Pietro storming through the Palazzo Ducale, tearing at his black curls and bellowing about women who were incapable of comprehending politics at any level lower than brute force. A great deal of wine had been spilt. Tell Anna—
“Yes,” he said. Let Pietro talk himself out of this one. Pietro had already dragged Baldesar deeper into this affair than Baldesar cared to go. Mediating between the Duke of Florens and the Duke of Mediola was one thing; getting between Pietro and Anna was quite another. “Will there be a reply?”
“What do you think?”
Baldesar shrugged. “He wanted me to tell you in the first place. I said I’d rather jump off a cliff. It might be quicker.” He glanced around her sitting room, trying to guess at how much the duke had spent on her. “Perhaps we’ll meet again when I return from Mediola.”
It was all but impossible to move in the Hall of Five Hundred, where the treasure entrusted to Baldesar by the Duke of Mediola had been welcomed to the Palazzo Ducale with all the pomp and splendor characteristic of the restored da Cignano court. The heat was unbearable. Baldesar struggled from acquaintance to acquaintance until the sight of Pietro bending over a bright head sent him stumbling down through the flood of latecomers still flowing up the great staircase. If anyone had asked, he would have said he felt one of his headaches coming on.
The courtyards were crowded and the upper rooms would be worse. The whole palazzo rang with the noise of the wedding feast. Baldesar went out through the open door into the piazza, which might have been dark if not for the linkboys waiting to escort the duke’s guests home.
He must have got used to looking into the shadows. He saw Anna before she saw him.
She was sitting beneath the statue of Federico da Cignano, who had been the Duke of Florens until he and his son had been driven into exile by the men who called themselves the Council of Fifteen. “Oh, Baldesar,” she said, not very interestedly. “How is the little duchess?”
He hadn’t really thought Anna would still be in Florens by the time he returned. She had made her feelings about Pietro’s marriage quite explicit. He sat beside her. “Delightful,” he said. “Beautiful, graceful, kind, virtuous, well-read. She’s perfect.”
“How nice,” Anna said coldly. “Pietro will be pleased.”
“Yes. He is.”
Unbidden, the memory of Pietro’s benevolent welcome to his bride flashed back to Baldesar, accompanied by a fresh constriction of his chest and aching throat. Baldesar had recognized Pietro’s well-hidden relief that the Mediolan girl really was as pretty as her picture, but he had also seen Pietro with Anna and he thought Pietro would return to the cypress-shaded house just as soon as his mistress was willing to receive him again. Pietro had no real taste for well-bred innocence. It was power and danger that attracted Pietro to Anna, not her beauty.
It should have comforted Baldesar. But Pietro needed children, which Anna could not, Pietro said, give him, and Pietro needed the alliance his new wife brought. Baldesar set his elbows on his knees with a groan.
Anna gazed up at the brilliantly lit windows of the palazzo, which leaked music and laughter. “Of course, I could go in,” she said, as if this had only just occurred to her. “That would be interesting. Pietro wouldn’t like it very much.” She pulled a pale hair tight around her fingers; it snapped. “I suppose it might spoil the party.”
Anything Anna had in mind was likely to spoil rather more than the party. For one crazy moment, Baldesar imagined encouraging her. “Will you?”
Anna plucked another hair from her shoulder and began to tie a series of irregular knots in it.
“No,” she said at last. “No, I don’t think I will.”
Baldesar rubbed his thighs and sighed. He ought to go back up to the Hall of Five Hundred. His absence from the festivities would certainly be noticed.
“It’s for the best, you know,” he said, getting to his feet. He held out his hand to Anna. “Come on. I’ll see you home.”
It wasn’t a letter that next took Baldesar to the cypress-shaded house, where Pasquino’s dimpled Simona brought him honey cakes in the sunlit parlor. This time Anna received him in her workroom. She sat at a table spread with methodically annotated sprigs; around the room, quantities of baroque glassware and disconcerting liquids bubbled. “Baldesar. Come in.”
He sat gingerly on a stool. “Am I disturbing you?”
“Yes. Did Pietro want something?”
“I was under the impression he wanted to teach you manners,” Baldesar said, since she didn’t seem to be paying much attention anyway. No doubt Pietro had already spoken to her, if they were back on speaking terms, as Baldesar had good reason to believe they were, but he had been too angry not to visit Anna himself. “He must have given up. I’ve come from the Palazzo Strozzi.”
“Oh. Have you?”
“Where it used to be, I should say. Do you know Paolo’s two little children were both killed when it collapsed?”
“Were they? What a pity. But so was Paolo Strozzi.”
“Since he hadn’t actually done anything yet, that’s not much comfort, is it? It’s just a tragedy. A sad misfortune for the richest and most powerful family in Florens, his Highness aside. And a hole in the ground where a very fine house used to be.”
“Pietro said something like that,” Anna said reflectively. “He was quite cross, actually. I think he wanted to make an example out of the man. At least, I did think that. But not this sort of example, I suppose. He said he wished I’d listen properly or not at all. So he can handle his own problems in future, we agreed. Was there anything else?”
It was something to hear the duke had not asked Anna to throw down the Palazzo Strozzi after all. Just what Anna had meant by doing it was another matter. Baldesar was halfway through the door when Anna’s voice stopped him dead. “The little duchess is very young, isn’t she? I hadn’t realized.”
“She’s almost sixteen.” He steadied himself against the doorframe. “How did you—”
“I went to see her afterwards. I see what you mean. She must look very pretty on Pietro’s arm.” She was looking around for a pen. “I suppose it’s just as well I didn’t spoil her wedding. But don’t tell Pietro that.”
It must have been the full moon shining under the door of the Room of Lilies. It was too pale to be candlelight, too clear to be firelight; besides, it was too late for anyone to be in there. Isabella should have gone back to her bed. She didn’t know why she was awake at all.
The door slid open when she pushed it. “You must be Pietro’s little duchess,” said the pale woman on the golden couch. “Come in.”
There was only fruit in the parlor that afternoon: all the cakes, Simona told Baldesar, very apologetically, had been devoured by locusts disguised as young ladies of the court. He could only shake his head. “What sort of a mood is the signora in, do you know?”
“Oh, she’s very cheerful,” Simona said. “She’s expecting his Highness later, you know.”
He hadn’t. He wondered if Donna Isabella knew, wondered if he should tell her, then realized with a sense of shock how it would look if it got back to her husband. Of course Baldesar had no business telling the duke’s wife about the duke’s visits to his mistress. Of course Donna Isabella knew anyway, having now paid that mistress the signal courtesy of visiting her twice herself.
He went upstairs to Anna’s sitting room, which certainly looked as if a swarm of locusts had been there, and passed through to her workroom, since the door was open. She stood by the window, gazing out between the bars. “Hello,” she said. “Simona will have told you there’s no cake today.”
“She did,” Baldesar said. “You had visitors, I hear.”
“Yes. The little duchess came again. I thought you’d tell her not to.”
“I did. I told her you had no manners and no morals and it was a bad idea. You wouldn’t appreciate it anyway. But her mother told her to find out if her husband had any serious mistresses and make friends with them, so she did. You didn’t have to go up to the Palazzo Ducale to scare her. You brought it on yourself.”
“Perhaps,” Anna said. “They want me to make them cosmetics. I suppose it might be interesting.” She sounded more bewildered than anything else. “I said I would. It made them go away.”
“You could tell his Highness. He’d put a stop to it.”
“I might. Since she doesn’t listen to you.”
“But why did my husband have her imprisoned?” Donna Isabella pressed. “She saved your lives.”
She had opened her warm brown eyes very wide, which was almost enough to spare Baldesar the memories of how he and the duke had returned from two years in exile. He preferred to remember the plan rather than how things had fallen out. According to the plan, he and Pietro da Cignano had slipped into Florens while the Floralia was in full swing, hidden themselves until nightfall, then opened the North Gate to let Fabrizio Colonna’s men inside. It had been simple. It might even have worked.
But they had been recognized, captured, interrogated, imprisoned. If not for Anna, Fabrizio Colonna would have left them both to rot.
If not for Anna. There were two reasons why Pietro da Cignano had arrested her anyway. Baldesar preferred the first.
“I advised him to. She killed the captain he hired to retake Florens. His men would have rioted. She’s dangerous, donna. You shouldn’t go near her.”
“But she did all that for Pietro. She must love him very much. Does he love her too?”
“Donna, you mustn’t ask me things like that,” Baldesar said helplessly. “All I know is that she wouldn’t think twice about harming you if she took it into her head to do so.”
Donna Isabella was frowning.
“I think she must be very lonely,” she decided. “I’ll visit her tomorrow.”
“But donna, really, I do assure you—”
“Enough of that,” said Donna Isabella, clapping her pretty hands. She smiled at Baldesar. “Won’t you read with me again, signor? I think I never loved any tale more than I love the Book of Galeotto.”
The inner courtyard was a labyrinth of stone blocks: the signora, said Pasquino, proudly displaying a dimpled bust that was recognizably Simona, had taken to sculpture. “It’s marvelous to watch,” he said. “It’s like she puts her hands on the stone and calls the image out of it! You should see it, signor, you really should.”
Most of the blocks had been pushed back to the edge of the courtyard to make space for a massive piece of marble that was developing curls. “His Highness, I presume,” Baldesar said. “I wondered where his colossus was going to come from. He only grinned when I asked.”
“Is that you, Baldesar?” called Anna from above. “Are you coming up or not?”
A half-empty dish of Simona’s cakes and several mostly empty wine-cups betrayed the earlier visitors to Anna’s sitting room. She sat there herself for once, although the great ungainly book splayed open in her lap was not the sort of thing Baldesar expected to find in a lady’s sitting room, such as poetry or some improving philosophical work, but rather a particularly fine copy of Jacopo Barigazzi’s commentary on de Lucci’s Anathomia. A map of certain excessively explored areas of feminine anatomy met Baldesar’s eyes; he averted them.
“You can sit down,” Anna said. “Pour your own drink.”
He did. “Did Donna Isabella visit this morning?”
“Yes. She wanted to know why she still isn’t pregnant.” She flattened the labelled pages, frowning. “She cried all over me,” she added, as if this puzzled her. “Three years isn’t very long.”
Sometimes Baldesar wondered whether Anna experienced even time like normal people. “What did you tell her?”
He wasn’t sure what he wanted the answer to be. If Donna Isabella could not give her husband children, the duke might send her back to her father, but if Donna Isabella did provide him with an heir, he might well lose interest in her altogether. The duke was fond of his wife, but he was fond of her as he might have been fond of a puppy, who could be called and dismissed and forgotten at will. She performed her duties beautifully and she gave the duke no trouble: in neither respect did she resemble Anna.
The duke’s taste in women always had been incomprehensible to Baldesar. He should have wanted to hear Donna Isabella would give her husband children soon.
“The truth,” Anna said. “If there’s a problem, I can’t fix it. I don’t cure people. Besides, it’s probably Pietro.”
He was startled and showed it. “Have you told him?”
“Yes. He wasn’t very happy.”
“It’s not— you didn’t…” Baldesar hesitated. “It couldn’t be something to do with you?”
“He said that too. I don’t see why it would be, though. Anyway, I’d have to open him up to know for sure.”
“My husband says he wants to send you to Felsina,” said Donna Isabella, gathering her damp skirts over her knees as she fondled her greyhound’s ears. “On personal business, we understand.”
Baldesar rubbed his neck and glanced towards the duchess’s attendants, clustered uncomfortably in the dripping lee of the cave where Donna Isabella and Baldesar had taken shelter. “We discussed it, donna. His Highness pointed out… my estate… an heir…”
The dog yelped. Donna Isabella soothed it quiet again. “And who is the lady? A Popoli princess at least, I hope.”
“Violante Popoli,” Baldesar said miserably. “She’s very young. It would be several years, donna.”
“It hardly seems urgent, then. Send her a picture. I’m sure she’ll like that.”
“You always know best, donna,” Baldesar said, experiencing a mixture of relief and dread. The Popoli family would not be pleased, nor would the duke approve of Baldesar dragging his heels over such a valuable marriage, but there was no arguing with Donna Isabella. “I’ll talk to his Highness, shall I?”
“I think you should,” said Donna Isabella, blossoming brilliantly. She tucked her gloved hand into Baldesar’s arm, turning up her bright face as he helped her rise. “After all, signor, what would we do without you?”
There was no time to marvel, as Baldesar had taken to doing lately, at how eight years had failed to alter Anna at all. She stood by the half-shaped block from which Donna Isabella was rising, spritely as a nymph, already shaking out her blanched stone hair. She seemed bemused. “Are you here for the little duchess? She’s quite upset.”
“Is she here? Can I see her?”
“Probably. She cried again. She wants me to tell Pietro there’s nothing wrong with him.”
“Immortal gods, you are going to? You have to, Anna! You must.”
Baldesar leaned against the gate, struggling to catch his breath. “Didn’t Donna Isabella tell you? She’s going to have a baby.”
“Oh,” said Anna, in mild surprise. “I must have been wrong. Pietro will be pleased.”
He almost cracked into laughter. He felt wild and windswept and desperately close to howling at Anna, which wouldn’t help.
“Yes, won’t he? So you tell him that as soon as you can. Very soon. I think he’s coming here now. Where’s Donna Isabella? Can I see her?”
“Well, don’t upset her. She’s upstairs.”
He took the stairs three at a time and found the little duchess crumpled up in a chair in Anna’s sitting room, her rose-gold hair covering her swollen face. She started up with a shriek, then sank back when she saw Baldesar. “You’re not Pietro!” she said, shuddering. “You scared me. I thought you were.”
“No, no,” Baldesar said, sitting down by her chair, close enough to feel her shaking. He was shaking too; he managed to steady himself. “Don’t worry. It’s all right. Anna will tell him.”
“She promised she wouldn’t let him find me. She promised—”
“It’s all right. I’ll protect you.”
“Oh, Baldesar,” said Isabella, her lashes trembling. “Can you?”
“Of course,” Baldesar said recklessly. Her head was wavering towards his shoulder; he folded his arms around her, pressing his face into her disordered hair. “Shhh, shh. Come here.” She was such a light little thing, like a frightened doe. “It’s all right,” he whispered to her. “It’s all right.”
Down below, the barred gate slammed against the wall. They froze as the duke stormed into his mistress’s house. Isabella’s fingers tightened on Baldesar’s arm; they were both hardly breathing. “Where is she?” the duke bellowed, slurring his words in his rage. “Where the hell’s my little whore of a wife?”
Anna’s voice was clearer. “Why are you so cross? Haven’t you heard?”
“I bloody have heard!” He must have kicked the table over. It sounded as if he was smashing it against one of Anna’s statues, which would not please her. “Where’s the little bitch?”
“Stop shouting. She’s already upset. You know how she cries.”
“I’ll make her more than cry! I’ll beat her black and blue and send her mewling to her father!” Another crash of overturned stone. Baldesar felt Isabella’s stifled whimper; he held her closer. “That’ll teach her to play me a trick like this!”
“Stop that. I mean it, Pietro. Stop that now.”
It was the tone Fabrizio Colonna must have heard when Anna commanded him to lead his company over the rubble of the North Gate, all those years ago. The duke was breathing so hard he could be heard upstairs in the sitting room. “Pick up that chair,” said Anna, so glacially it seemed the air had frozen. The chair scraped across the ground. “Sit down. Stop breaking things. You wanted heirs. Why aren’t you pleased?”
She sounded genuinely puzzled. Baldesar wanted to howl again. The duke’s voice dropped to an unintelligible growl. “I must have been wrong,” Anna said. “It was only a guess.” He said something else. “Yes, she did. Why?” And then, surprised, “Really? Is that likely? Baldesar always says she’s the soul of chastity.”
Isabella flinched in Baldesar’s arms. He heard nothing but her heartbeat for what seemed like forever. He wanted to stroke her hair, but his hand wouldn’t move.
With a sense of deepening unreality, he heard Pietro da Cignano laugh. It was a deep, raw sound that broke into something rougher in the middle, almost helplessly.
“Anna,” Pietro said, “Anna, my love, my brilliant life, my one and only. I love you with all my heart. I do.” He sounded despairing. “My terrible, beautiful, incomparable Anna. But you are so, so stupid. I can’t tell you how.”
After a long, taut moment in which it seemed possible to hear the dust falling, Baldesar unfolded himself and got up.
“Don’t worry,” he said to Isabella, whose hands flew out to him imploringly. “Stay here. Anna can keep him there if she wants.” He cupped her cheek, managed to smile. “I’ll talk to him.”
The courtyard was a wreck. Anna’s table lay in a corner in splintered pieces, surrounded by marble shards and broken glass. The statue of Isabella, half-begun, had been hurled forwards onto its smashed face. Pietro sat in the middle of the wreckage, his elbows on his knees and his hair curling darkly over his tortured fingers. He was too big for the chair, which creaked under his weight.
Anna stood behind him, one hand on his shoulder, running her fingers absently through his hair. Her mouth was straight and her brows had drawn together; she might work it out eventually, if Pietro didn’t tell her first.
Pietro glanced up as Baldesar came down the stairs. “Don’t do this,” Baldesar said to him, standing squarely on the bottom step. “You’re scaring her.”
Pietro tossed his head and snorted like a bull. He was looking at Baldesar with the black mistrust generally reserved for ambitious patricians who could not be safely sidelined or easily removed. “Anna, do I scare you?”
She shook her head. “If there’s anything in the world that scares Anna, I wouldn’t want to meet it,” Baldesar said. “But Anna’s not Donna Isabella. You’re not thinking, Pietro. You know Donna Isabella wouldn’t do a thing like that.”
“Do I,” Pietro said. “Really.”
“Of course she wouldn’t. She’s the soul—” He bit his tongue. “No woman was ever less likely to do something so unbefitting to her position. You know how strict her father is. You know how well-behaved her ladies are. Anna was wrong about you. That’s all. Isn’t it, Anna?”
“Yes,” Anna said, after a pause. She was frowning. “I already said that.”
He could have kissed her feet. “She’s terrified, Pietro. She deserves better than this.”
“She deserves a good whipping,” Pietro said roughly. “If she’s so virtuous, why did she run to Anna?”
“If she wasn’t, do you think she’d dare?”
“Pietro,” said Isabella’s wavering voice from the top of the stairs, where she stood barefoot and tear-stained, her tumbled hair clouding rosily around her shoulders. She gathered up her green silk gown, which was pulled-about enough to show her chemise peeping out at her neck, and ventured down a couple of steps. “You have to believe me. Please— please don’t…”
She was leaking tears again. Her husband launched himself out of his chair, which toppled over with a crash. It made Isabella’s eyes widen; she squeaked, scrabbling backwards, all but falling over the uppermost step in her panic.
Before Baldesar could do anything, Anna seized Pietro’s elbow. “Sit down,” she told him and swept towards the stairs. She pushed Baldesar out of the way and stood there looking up at Isabella, huddled fearfully in a morass of crumpled skirts at the top. “Come down here, Isabella,” she said firmly. “Come on.”
Isabella descended reluctantly. “Anna—” Baldesar began.
“Shut up, Baldesar.” She put her arm around Isabella and looked satisfied when Isabella, clutching at her, buried her face in Anna’s gown and dissolved into a shuddering storm of weeping. “There, there,” Anna said triumphantly, like someone reciting a magic formula. When Isabella raised her head, sniffing, Anna plucked a handkerchief from her sleeve to dab at Isabella’s damp cheeks.
“Now are you going to stop crying?” she asked Isabella. “I can make them go away, if you want.”
Isabella bit her quavering lip and nodded. “All right,” Anna said. “Pietro. Baldesar. Get out. You can sit in Simona’s parlor, if you want. But don’t get in her way. She always likes to have a good gossip with Isabella’s maid.”
Pietro’s mouth was half open. “But Anna—”
“No,” said Anna. “Go away. Both of you.” She glanced around her courtyard with severe displeasure. “Don’t break anything else,” she added. “When Isabella’s feeling better, her maid can take her home. And stop talking about whipping her. I want both of you to stop upsetting her. Especially you, Pietro. She’s going to have your baby.”
Anna brushed her fingertips over a lichen-covered memorial. “Hello,” she said.
“You’re out early,” Baldesar managed to say. “I thought you only left your house after dark.”
“I don’t think it matters much now. Most people never really knew what I looked like. Not after the soldiers left.” She looked as she had always done: a spare, fine girl with the chilliest blue eyes Baldesar had ever seen. “Pietro told me you resigned your offices.”
Baldesar gripped the headstone so hard his fingers trembled. Anna had worn ivory when she came out of Isabella’s room with her arms bloody to her elbows and walked straight up to the Room of Lilies with a set white face. Whatever Pietro had said to her there, Baldesar had not seen Anna since.
Guilt and grief twisted Baldesar’s stomach tighter than fear. “I said I’d do one last thing for him before I retire to my own estates.”
“He said you were going to Mediola to tell Isabella’s father she died in childbirth.”
“I did try. But I did tell you I don’t cure people.”
“I know. Pietro knows. You tried.”
“You aren’t coming back to Florens, are you?”
“No.” All he could see was the sheen of Isabella’s perfumed hair, and Pietro glowering across the wreckage of Anna’s courtyard. No one who attracted looks like that lasted long in Florens, especially not when Anna knew their name. “I wasn’t going to.”
She nodded, fishing for something in her sleeve. “Here.”
It was a scrap of tightly folded parchment. Baldesar took it hesitantly. “What is it?”
“Pietro said you were going to marry some Felsinan girl. It’s the recipe for the solution I made for Isabella to wash her hair. I thought your wife might like it.”
He palmed the parchment into his pouch, fumbling a little because his hands were still shaking. Behind, the crowd at the North Gate was clearing; ahead, the road to Felsina and Mediola lay clear.
He would never have imagined Anna might stand between him and Isabella and Pietro. He should have kissed her feet. He was going to get back on his horse and nod to her and ride away.
Anna watched him distantly. “Farewell,” she said.
|Julia August is still looking for the Book of Galeotto, although she will be careful about the company she keeps while reading it when she finds it. Her short fiction has appeared in Kaleidotropea couple of times before, as well as in The Journal of Unlikely Academia, Women Destroy Fantasy!, PodCastle, Lackington’s Magazine and elsewhere. She is @JAugust7 on Twitter and j-august on Tumblr. Find out more at juliaaugust.com.|