"Before all else, be armed."—Machiavelli
When I first came to Rome, I had nothing to my name but
a tattered bundle of recipes and a mummified hand. One was
my shame and the other, with a little luck, was my future.
"Santa Marta, don't fail me now," I murmured, patting the
lumpy little bundle under my skirt, and knocked.
I had to knock four times before the door yanked open,
and a serving woman with a face like an angry walnut
appeared. "Yes?" she said shortly, looking me up and down. I
might be tall, long–faced, and plain at best, and I
certainly did not look my best that morning, but she didn't
have to make it so clear.
I pinned a smile into place. "I seek Maestro Marco
Santini. He is maestro di cucina here?"
"You're not the only one seeking him. He owe you money?
He had to pay the last one in spices, and Madonna Adriana
"He's my cousin." All true so far, though anything else
I told her would likely be lies.
"Well, he's not here. Madonna Adriana's son is to be
married, and Madonna Adriana palmed the feast off on that
cardinal cousin of hers. Maestro Santini, he'll be at the
Cardinal's palazzo now with the other servants,
making preparations. Dio," the serving woman
muttered, "let him be there."
"Where?" I felt my smile slipping. I'd crossed half the
city already in too–tight secondhand shoes; my feet
hurt and sweat collected between my shoulder blades because
a late–May morning in Rome was far hotter than it had
any right to be. And if this stupid woman kept blocking my
way I'd cut off her thumbs and fry them in good olive oil
with a little garlic and make her eat them. "It's very
important that I find him, signora."
She set me on my way with a grudging set of directions,
so I spared her thumbs and plunged back into the chaos that
was Rome. At any other time I would have gaped at the noise,
the crush, the din, so different from the silent waterways
I'd always called home, but life for me had narrowed. Carts
rumbled past me on one side, swaggering young bravos in
parti–colored doublets shouldered past on the other,
sharp–eyed servant girls counted coins to wheedling
vendors, and stray dogs sniffed my skirts as I
passed—but I saw none of it. I plowed through the
crowds as if blind, walking a tunnel of noise and color I'd
followed south all the way from Venice to Rome. A
terror–laced tunnel with Marco at the end of it: a
cousin I hadn't seen in five years who had somehow become my
only hope for survival.
Well, my eyes might not have registered much, but my
nose did. Even as my heart thudded and my feet ached and my
frightened thoughts yammered in my brain telling me I was a
fool, my nose was busy parceling out the scents and smells
of Rome. You can't turn off a cook's nose: My whole life was
fracturing around me like one of those impractical Murano
goblets that break the instant you look at them, but my nose
was happily telling me Manure, yes, from all the carts;
ox blood, my, you don't get that in Venice; let's see, that
smell there feels like sun baking on marble, and what's that
dusty sweet scent? Incense? Yes, incense, of course,
considering there's a church or a shrine in every piazza in
this city. Even with my eyes shut, my ever–busy
cook's nose could have told me I was no longer in Venice.
Venice was sulfur and brick and the hot, melting–sand
smell of sun on glass; rot rising from the canals and salt
from the lagoon. Venice was home.
Not anymore, I reminded myself grimly as I passed
the Ponte Sant'Angelo where they hung the bodies of those
thieves less fortunate than me—those, in other words,
unfortunate enough to get caught. I saw one fresh corpse, a
thief who had had his hands and ears chopped off and strung
about his neck before being hanged. He had a smell too, the
rich stink of rot. Beside the thief was a heretic who had
been hanged upside down and was now little more than a few
picked bones. The crows were busy all over the bridge,
pecking and gulping, and I said a quick prayer that they'd
never peck and gulp at my bones. Which at the moment was far
from certain, and for a moment I thought my queasy stomach
would heave up what little food I'd been able to afford that
But then I saw my goal: the Cardinal's palazzo
rising rich and arrogant midway between the Campo dei Fiori
and the Ponte Sant'Angelo. "Can't miss it," the sour old
walnut in the apron had told me. "Not with that huge shield
over the door. Got a bull on it—what kind of crest is
that for a man of God?" And even if I'd missed the bull,
there was no mistaking the crush of people flowing through
the great doors. Ladies in figured velvets and
air–light veils; clerics in red and purple robes;
young dandies with jewels on their fingers and those huge
slashed sleeves—yes, a wedding party awaiting the
arrival of the bride.
Those grand double doors weren't for me, not in my
too–small shoes and the patched ill–fitting
dress I'd gotten used off a vendor who tried to tell me the
stains at the hem were embroidery and not old mud. But
there's always a separate entrance for servants and
deliveries, and soon I was knocking on another door. This
time I didn't even have time to pat the little bundle under
my skirt and mutter a prayer before the door wrenched open.
"Thank the Madonna, Maestro, you're—" The young
man in the apron broke off, staring at me. "Who are you?"
"Carmelina Mangano." I felt a lock of short black hair
spring loose on my forehead, the heat frizzing it out from
under the headdress I'd improvised from another length of
stained cloth. "My cousin, Maestro Marco Santini—"
"Yes?" the apprentice said eagerly. "You know where he is?"
"I was hoping you could tell me."
"Oh, God in heaven," the boy moaned. "He flitted out to
play zara this morning—just a round, he said,
no more than an hour, just to relax him before the feast.
Saints help us, it's been hours now and we're sunk—"
Sounded like Marco was up to his old tricks. "A nose for
sauces and a hand for pastry," my father had often
complained about my cousin, "and nothing between the ears
but cards and dice!" But the apprentice had turned away from
the door, yammering and moaning to a cluster of
flour–aproned serving girls, and my nose started swooning.
Saffron. Sweet Santa Marta, how long had it been since I
smelled saffron? Or the sweet sizzle of duck being turned on
a spit and sauced with honey and the juice from an orange? A
sharper smell, that would be fine vinegar, the good stuff
from Modena so tart and yet so mellow on the tongue it could
bring tears to the eyes . . .
I'd spent the last weeks breathing fear like air, the
sour taste of it and the acrid smell of it—and now I
smelled something else, something good, and the fear was
gone. Without meaning to I'd followed my entranced nose
inside the kitchens, past the cluster of agitated
apprentices. All around me was a kitchen thronged with
people, but I just closed my eyes and sniffed rapturously.
Olive oil. Good olive oil sizzling in a pan rather than
lurking sullen and spoiled in a jar; olive oil so fresh from
the pressing it would still be bright green when it was
poured . . . the sweet burn of pepper just ground . . . the
smoky saltiness of cheese fresh–cut from the
wheel—I hadn't smelled good cheese in at least a year.
Flour, the fine milled stuff so light it drifted in the air,
and something savory baking in a crust . . .
Or burning in a crust. My eyes snapped open, and
I saw a telltale puff of smoke from the nearest oven. I flew
across the kitchen, lifting double handfuls of my stained
skirt to seize the hot pan and whisk it out of the heat. The
pastry shell bubbled black and scorched, and before I could
think twice I was shouting.
"Santa Marta!" I yelled, and the agitated cluster of
white–aproned apprentices and serving girls turned to
stare at me. "Letting a tourte burn? If you worked
for me, I'd dice you all into a pottage!"
"Who are you?" one of the serving girls blinked.
"Who cares who she is?" an apprentice snarled. "Maestro
Santini's scarpered off to play zara again, and if we
can't get that bloody wedding feast ready—"
They began to argue, and I just let my eyes travel the
kitchens. What a sight. Small, cramped kitchens, for one
thing—the Cardinal with the bull over his door might
have spent a fortune on that fine tapestried entrance hall
I'd glimpsed as the wedding guests streamed in, but he
hadn't spent a ducat on his kitchens. Still, the cramped
smoky fireplace and bowed spit and inconveniently placed
trestle tables weren't what made me start cursing. It was
the sight of the roast birds not being turned and basted on
their various spits, the bowls of flour not being kneaded
into pastry, the eggs not being whipped into delicious
frothy peaks. The sight of iniquity, immorality, pure evil,
and possibly the world's end: a kitchen in disorder.
"If we just send out the roast peacock," one of the
undercooks was saying, "do you think they'd miss the veal?"
But I cut him off.
"How many wedding guests?"
Blank looks passed between them. I wouldn't need to cook
this lot into pottage; it was clearly all they had between
the ears. "The menu," I snapped. "Tell me."
"Whole peacock in its plumage—"
"Veal with morello cherries—"
"Bergamot pears with cloves—"
A menu pieced itself together out of the disjointed
chorus. A good one, too—Marco was a dice–rolling
pazzo, but the pazzo had trained under my father, and
he could cook.
So could I. And there wasn't a recipe here I didn't know
as well as my own name.
"Someone get me a small knife." I looked around the
kitchens, found a discarded apron, and tied it over my
disreputable dress. "And where are the onions? Genovese
onions, if you have them."
The pot–boys gazed at me as they perspired in the
heat of the banked fireplace; the white–aproned
apprentices stood behind the long trestle tables with their
haphazard arrangement of pots and bowls and looked at their
toes; the serving maids whispered behind their hands before
sinks mounded with dishes. "Who are you again?" one of the
apprentices said at last, rudely. "We aren't taking no
orders from you."
Ah, the sound of an insolent apprentice. How long had it
been since I'd put one in his place? Even longer than the
last time I'd smelled good cheese.
"I'm Maestro Santini's cousin." I smiled benevolently,
finding a small knife and beginning my hunt for Genovese
onions. "And who are you?"
"Piero. And just because you say you're his cousin—"
"The wedding guests approach, Piero," I interrupted him,
leaching the sweetness out of my voice and letting it sink
to a venomous whisper. My father's whisper, the one that
could whip round a kitchen shriveling spines as it traveled
along. "The wedding party will soon arrive, and the peacock
isn't even off the spit yet. The pastry hasn't even been
rolled. The one dish I see plated in this ninth ring of hell
you call a kitchen is a very nice shad over there. And
the cat is eating it."
The maids and scullions just looked at each other and
mumbled. The cat hissed at me: an enormous tom with a
tattered ear who bent to give a leisurely swipe of his
tongue along the length of the fish. Beautiful shad,
impeccably braised in what I suspected was the sauce of
cinnamon and cloves that my father detailed in the packet of
recipes in my pouch (page 386, Chapter: Sauces). Though when
I made that sauce I liked to add a dash of salt and vinegar
for bite, and just a few threads of saffron to give it color
. . .
"Out!" I shooed the cat to the floor, helping it toward
the door with my foot. "Out, unless you want to end up on
the spit! Now, if you batch of parboiled fools can tell
"Maestro Santini?" A woman's voice sounded behind me. I
whirled and then hastily followed the example of the maids
and curtsied before the stout gray–haired matron in
her elaborate headdress. "Maestro Santini, where—" Her
eyes traveled apprehensively around the kitchens, as though
she were afraid something would explode all over her maroon
"Madonna Adriana," Piero the sulky apprentice said, and
then apparently ran out of inspiration. His eyes hunted
desperately around the mess of pots and pans, the piles of
flour, and the blackened pastry.
"Madonna Adriana da Mila, I take it?" I swept forward
with my most radiant smile, hoping she wouldn't notice my
stained dress under the apron. "Maestro Santini has spoken
to me often of how honored he is to work in your household."
No one had told me anything about her, actually—just
her name, the employer in Rome who had been fool enough to
hire Marco as her cook. Just an idle line of gossip from my
father, but I'd followed the slender thread of that name all
the way south to Rome. "I am his cousin Carmelina Mangano,
newly come from Venice. Naturally I agreed to assist my
cousin for such an illustrious occasion as this."
She reared back. "I agreed to pay for three extra pairs
of hands in the kitchens, not four—"
"I work free, madonna." I crossed myself. "As is
a girl's most sacred duty."
Madonna Adriana brightened—ah, yes, one of those
illustrious silk–clad ladies whose eyes shone not for
sweets or jewels or compliments, but for the thought of
getting something cheap. Better yet, free.
"Your son's wedding, madonna?" I continued in my
creamiest tones. It's an art, oiling the patrons—my
father had no sweet words for his family but he was a master
at oiling up his customers. He could have a cheap old bitch
like this one sweetened, spiced, and on the spit before she
even knew she'd been skewered. "A happy occasion! All is as
it should be here, I assure you."
"I heard, er, shouting." My cousin's employer hunted
about the borrowed kitchens with her keen peppercorn eyes.
"You're certain all will be ready soon? The wedding
procession has crossed the piazza—"
"And your son will hardly taste a bite of any dish we
make, he'll be so eager to see his bride, but all will be
ready anyway." I pinned a smile into place like a capon's
little trussed legs, not breathing until Adriana da Mila
gave a last dubious look.
"Be careful with that good sugar," she warned over her
shoulder. "So expensive!" And then, thanks be to God, she
"So." I turned on the now–cowed cluster of
undercooks and maidservants, foot tapping beneath my aproned
skirts. "You know who I am. I am the one who can pull this
wedding feast out of thin air." Can you? my
traitorous thoughts whispered. You haven't done any real
cooking in two years. But too late to think of that now.
"I am the one who is going to save your position in Madonna
Adriana's household," I continued in the most confident
voice I could muster. Their positions, and Marco's with
them. Normally I'd have threatened to cut my cousin's ears
off and toast them with basil and pine nuts for abandoning a
wedding feast midflow, but now I could kiss him. I hadn't
even laid eyes on Marco yet, but already he owed me a favor.
Or he would, if I truly managed to deliver this wedding feast.
I'd have to. Because it was quite a favor I needed out
of him in return.
My heart began to hammer and I tasted fear again in my
mouth, sour and rancid, as I thought of just what I was
risking. But I had no time for fear, not now. I was
Carmelina Mangano, daughter of a great cook in Venice and
cousin to another here in Rome even if he was a
card–playing fool. I was twenty years old and maybe I
all I had to my name was a mummified hand and a keen nose,
but I had a houseful of hungry wedding guests coming and may
Santa Marta herself cook me and eat me if I sent them away
"Everyone listen." I clapped my hands, and when that
wasn't enough to stop the apprentices' grumbling, I stamped
one foot. "I want to see mouths shut, mouths shut and hands
moving, because if the wedding procession has turned out
into the piazza, we've no time to waste. Piero, get
that peacock off the spit, brush the breast with honey, and
stick it all over with candied pine nuts. You, what's your
name? Ottaviano, the bergamot pears; peel them in hot wine
and roast them with some ground sugar and whole cloves.
Serving girls, the credenza. If it's groaning with things to
nibble, they won't notice if the first dishes are late.
Dried figs, olives and capers, those small Neapolitan limes
and pink apples over there, Ligurian cheese if you have
"I don't know where—"
"Start looking." My own fingers were flying over the pot
of zuppa someone had left over a low fire. I took a sniff,
and my ecstatic nose told me pepper, verjuice, sautÃ©ed
truffles—ah, yes, the oyster stew on page 64,
Subsection: Soups and Stews. I found a small knife and began
shucking oysters into the sizzling mix. Tiny roasted chicks
were supposed to go into the pot; had anyone roasted any
chicks? All that came to eye was a spit of roasted squab. I
tossed the knife down and fished out the packet of papers
from my pouch (the other pouch, not the one with the dead
hand) and flipped to page 84. Squab may be used in place
of chicks, my father had written in his tight scrawl.
Add more verjuice and some ground Milanese almonds to
thicken the broth. It was the first time I'd looked at
his collection of recipes since the day I'd stuffed the
loose–bound ragged–edged pile of handwritten
paper into my pouch when his back was turned. For a moment I
blinked, looking at the tightly packed lines of text,
written in the odd shorthand code he'd employed to keep his
secrets from thieving rivals. But not from me—I'd read
all his recipes, and now the black penned lines of coded
spices and meats was all I'd have of him.
Never mind. We'd never shared much, my father and me,
besides recipes. If he could see me now, he'd be the first
to drag me back by the hair to face the justice of Venice.
"Signorina, the credenza—" The
harried maids were hovering around me now, too resigned or
too desperate to object to taking my orders.
"Put the cheeses out, all of them, and the cold meats."
I finished with the oysters and took swift stock of the
pantry, calculating dishes. Salty nibbles to make the guests
reach for their wine—once they had enough wine in them
they wouldn't notice how late the roast peacock was. "The
mortadelle, the sow belly, the salt ox
tongues—that prosciutto, slice it very thin first so
it looks like marble—skin those pears, ox–brain,
skin them before you add the sugar!" A steward stumped past
muttering, trailed by a stream of servants with wine
flagons. "Keep that wine pouring," I called after him.
Was that the clamor of guests upstairs already? I flung
another prayer heavenward as I threw myself on an onion and
began to chop. "Help me now, Santa Marta. You know what it's
like to cook for important people." Of course, Santa Marta
had cooked for our Lord, but I suspected He would be a lot
more patient if His food was late than Adriana da Mila's son
and his new bride.
On the other hand, maybe not. Hungry guests are hungry
guests, and I very much doubted if the heavenly ones were
any more useful than the earthly kind when it came to
helping in the kitchen. They say Mary was wiser than Marta,
sitting at the feet of Christ and worshipping, but I always
had more sympathy for Marta. Somebody had to do the dishes
while everyone else was worshipping at the feet of Christ.
Christ must have thought so too, since He made Marta into a
saint, and not just any saint but the patron saint of cooks
like me all over the earth. Maybe He was grateful to get a
good meal for once, instead of having to do all the work
Himself conjuring up fishes and loaves.
We understood each other, Santa Marta and I, long before
I'd started carrying her dead withered hand around in a
pouch under my skirt.
Despite my flying thoughts, I couldn't help smiling as
my fingers sealed a crumble of fresh cheese and sweet olive
oil and Genovese onions into a pastry crust. The cramped
little kitchens were humming like a beehive, the apprentices
were working like hired mules, and I imagined I could hear
the murmur of guests upstairs: the whisper of expensive
silks, the peal of laughter from a happy bride. The clink of
fine glasses, the crunch as salted nuts and honeyed dates
and morsels of Ligurian cheese disappeared into the mouths
of cardinals and wedding guests and bridegroom alike. The
oohs and aahs that went up as the roast
peacock, my roast peacock, came swaying in at last on the
backs of two serving men, proud and feathered and
sweet–cooked and not at all looking like it had been
whipped together in a quarter of the time it needed (at
least if you didn't look too close).
My heart was hammering, my hair was frizzing out of its
scarf again, I had no past and only the barest of
futures—a future I was trusting to luck, and to my own
rusty skills. If either failed me, I'd probably end up on
the Ponte Sant'Angelo hanging next to all the other thieves
and renegades whose luck and skill had failed them. Or sent
back to Venice where an even more gruesome fate lurked, God
help me. But my cheese and onion tourte was already
bubbling sweet and golden in the oven; I had the smell of
olive oil and cinnamon in my nose again; my hands and no
doubt my face were covered in flour. I hadn't cooked in two
years, but I was cooking now—my old skills were rusty,
but not gone. I hadn't lost my touch. And for now, that was
enough to call happiness.
The man across the table from me was proving a bad
loser, but most of my opponents are. Men who play for money
do not like to lose, and even less do they like losing to a
"Fluxus," I said, laying four cards down across the
wine–sticky table. "All hearts. The pot is mine."
"Wait now," the heavy fellow on my left protested. "You
haven't seen my cards yet!"
"Doesn't matter. You have nothing higher than a
numerus." I leaned forward and began to scoop coins from the
center of the table.
He flung his cards down, swearing. A numerus—three
diamonds and a spade; a hand that wouldn't win you enough to
buy a cup of the rotgut wine they served at this tavern,
much less the pot in the middle of the table. I grinned and
began counting my winnings. "Another round," I told Anna the
tavern maid. "Three of whatever my friends are drinking, and
Anna winked. My usual was water darkened with just
enough wine to make it look like the real thing. With Anna's
expert hand mixing my wine, I could keep a clear head all
through the night while my partners got drunker and drunker.
She was the best thing about the tavern, which otherwise
wasn't much but a dim little room, ill–lit from dirty
windows, its long tables grimed by smoke and rickety at the
legs. Besides myself and the three players I'd just fleeced,
a pair of drinkers grumbled and swigged wine and rolled
grubby sets of dice, and two boys in black velvet sat by a
sullen fire playing zara and swearing over the game
board. The usual mix for a tavern like this: drunks looking
to lose the money they'd earned driving carts or working the
docks, and rich boys ducking their tutors in search of
whores, wine, and a little low–quarters fun.
The heavyset man on my left was still staring at me,
flush mounting in his raddled cheeks. "How did you know what
cards I held?"
Dio. I gave him a flat look. No one wants to have
lost to a dwarf; therefore the dwarf must have cheated. I
could cheat, of course—I could palm cards invisibly
from my sleeve to my hand; I could deal games that were all
hearts, all jacks, anything I wanted. But I didn't. Tavern
cheats are too often beaten to a pulp and tossed out the
door, and a beating for a man my size was like to kill me.
"I used no tricks, I assure you," I said in a bored voice.
"Merely mathematical certitude."
"What's that?" Suspicious. "Magic?"
"It means I count, good sir, when I play
primiera. I count the cards that are dealt, I count
the cards that are played; I calculate the certainty of the
cards not shown. Calculation produces mathematical odds, not
magic, and thus I knew what cards you held in your hand."
"Big words for a little man," one of the other players
guffawed. "You got as many words as you've got magic tricks,
"Counting must be magic for some." I swept the last
coins into my purse. "Do you wish to try it for our next
game? I understand you will need to take off your boots when
the count passes ten."
I waited patiently while he worked his way through it.
My insults are wasted on the drunk. When he figured it out,
the flush rose dark to his hairline. "You stunted little
Not so stunted as your skill at cards, I could
have said. Or that shriveled prick you keep wheedling
Anna to grab. But I didn't say it. No man likes his
uglinesses pointed out; it's a sure way to a bloody mouth or
a broken nose. Dwarves don't like it either, but a dwarf's
looks belong to everyone. Children, men, women; they're free
to point and laugh, to say what they like. I'd known that
ever since I was small—or rather, since I was very
small and first realized I was never going to grow big.
"Another game?" I said instead, and fanned the deck of
cards faultlessly with a flick of my wrist.
The drunk slapped one meaty hand down on the table with
a crash of cups, and the zara players by the fire
glanced up. "You runty little cheat, I'll have your guts
round your filthy neck—"
The knife thumping down into the table silenced him. I'd
slammed the blade down into the wood precisely between his
two first fingers without drawing even a whisper of
blood—a pretty trick, if I do say so myself, and one
that's bought me many a fast exit. The drunk looked down at
the knife in the table, and by the time he realized its
point had trapped the wood and not his hand, I'd yanked up
my blade and Anna had slipped fast between us.
"Another drink?" she wheedled in that tired sweet voice
that was the prettiest thing about her. "The little man
already paid, you might as well drink it. Here, our best
He allowed her to pull him away and fold the cup of
rotgut wine into his hand, and she allowed him to grope a
little at her flat breast while giving me a stern look over
his shoulder. I made an apologetic face, sliding a coin
across the table in her direction, and turned to my other
two partners. "Another game?"
"Primiera's not for me." A big affable fellow,
handsome and black–haired, who had grinned when I
slammed the knife into the table. Marco, his name was, and
for some reason he always smelled like cinnamon. I'd taken a
good deal of coin off him in the past months, but he never
seemed to hold it against me. "I'm a man for zara,
myself," he confided.
Zara is a game for idiots. I never played
zara, or any game of chance for that matter. Chess
was the game I liked best, but chess is for aristocrats. Not
many chessboards in the lower kind of Roman taverns, the
ones where I made my money. "Fortune be with you," I told
Marco, though I knew well enough that he'd lose, and snapped
my cards together. Old worn cards by now, frayed about the
edges and greasy with thumb marks and wine stains, but I'd
made good money from them over the years. I might look like
a seedy fellow down on his luck—my leather doublet was
battered, my shirt had patches on the threadbare elbows, and
the hose stretching over my crooked legs fit very
ill—but it didn't do for a dwarf to look prosperous.
We're easy enough marks as it is without wearing embroidered
sleeves or fine cloaks. Besides, the less coin I spent on
clothes, the more I had for books. I fingered the coins in
my purse, enough for a good meal tonight and a flask of wine
to go with it, and tucked my cards away. "I think I will try
my luck elsewhere today," I told Anna as she came back,
wiping her hands on her apron. "Your friend is still giving
me black looks from the fire."
"You can carry my basket to market for me, that's what
you can do," Anna told me, hands on hips. "Least you can do
after I sweetened that fellow off the idea of choking you.
The cazzo had his hand up my skirt like he was
fishing for gold."
"The flesh of fair Anna is sweeter far than gold," I
said, and offered my arm. Anna laughed as she took it, but
not at me. Anna never laughed at me, and that made her a
rare girl indeed. Woman, really—she claimed twenty
years, but I would have bet twenty–five, and she
looked thirty. Life serving drinks in a tavern is quick to
put a slump in a woman's shoulders, a sag to her breasts,
and lines around her eyes. But she still had a sweet dent of
a dimple beside her mouth, and it flickered at me as we left
"You'll get yourself killed one of these days," she
warned as we slid into the crowd. Men and women alike were
pressing eagerly along the street, craning their necks
toward something I was far too small to see—there must
be a dancing bear up ahead, or a cardinal on procession.
Maybe a dancing cardinal; I'd pay to see that. "You don't
have to twit them after you take their money, Leonello.
You'll jape at the wrong person someday, and he'll put a
knife in your ear."
"Not before I put one in his." Card play wasn't the only
skill I'd picked up over a dubious life of scraping by.
Knife play was handy for a little fellow like me who didn't
have a prayer in heaven of using a sword or flattening his
enemies with a punch. I always kept a knife at my belt,
sharpened to a whisper, and two or three more in places that
"There's easier ways to make money than playing drunks
for it," Anna argued. She slowed her steps to match mine,
something for which I was always grateful. I tried not to
scuttle when I walked, striding firmly and keeping my toes
straight even though it made my misshapen joints ache, but
forever running after longer–legged people made it
near impossible not to scuttle like a crab. "The
tavernkeeper yesterday," Anna went on, "he was going on how
he wants some entertainment in the common room in the
evenings. You could juggle walnuts, tell jokes, make people
laugh. Maybe even get yourself a suit of motley, be a proper
jester. Coins would come rolling in, you'll see. You're
funny when you want to be, Leonello."
"Anna," I sighed. "Anna of the amber–bright gaze
and kind heart, I esteem you greatly, but I fear you mistake
me. I do not juggle. I do not tumble. I do not jest, joke,
or jig, and for no price in all God's created world do I
"You're a touchy little man, you know that?"
"Just as every rose has its thorns, every dwarf must
have some claim to distinction besides his height." I kissed
her hand formally as thought I were one of the swaggering
bravos in slashed doublets and curled hair roistering and
laughing in the crowd ahead. Tall swaggering bravos.
"Perhaps you would care to share my meal tonight? The
pleasure of your company would be most welcome, at table and
"A fishmonger already asked me," she said, regretful.
"I'd rather it was you—you don't smell like fish and
sweat between the sheets."
"Another time, perhaps." Anna made a pleasant bedmate
every now and then, when I was in the mood for company more
lively than my books. She was affable rather than
passionate, but a dwarf learned not to expect passion in the
women he bought. Affable was good enough, and she would even
take a half hour afterward to massage my stunted legs until
the crooked muscles loosened. "I can't go giving it to you
for free," she'd said the first time I took her to my bed.
"I may not be pretty, but even a plain girl like me can't go
giving it away, not if she wants to get by in this world."
"Give it away?" I'd snorted. "You're the first woman in
years who hasn't wanted double payment to make up for my
"You're a little man, true enough," she'd said, taking
my chin and turning it toward the light. "But deformed don't
say it right. You'd be handsome, Leonello, if you didn't
scowl so much."
And she'd be pretty if she had the coin for a silk dress
and a pair of velvet slippers, but she didn't. I didn't say
it, though. I had a viper tongue that enjoyed spitting cruel
words, but not to the one friend I had in all Rome.
Anna was craning her neck at the crowd lining the
street. "I hear music—do you think it's a wedding
"You're the tall one, sweet lady. You tell me."
She pressed her way into the crowd, me sliding after her
among all the legs like a fish negotiating the currents of
the Tiber. "The bride, the bride," someone whispered over my
head. "I can see her horse!"
"It is a wedding procession," Anna said down to me,
"Pity. I was hoping for a dancing cardinal."
"I don't understand half the things you say." Anna
tucked a limp strand of hair back behind one ear. "You think
she'll be pretty? The bride, I mean."
"It's some rich boy's new wife," the man behind me
disagreed before I could reply. "Five scudi says
she'll be pockmarked and plain."
I wriggled my way past Anna to the front, with half an
eye to following the bride and her retinue from her father's
house to her new husband's. Wealthy brides toss coins into
the crowds along the way, if they aren't too shy, and I
wasn't too proud to pick a coin off the ground. Close to the
ground as I was, I could get the lion's share—a lion's
share for Leonello the little lion.
Liveried servants were trotting along in columns now,
forcing back the crowds on either side of the street as the
procession began in earnest. A troop of pages with chests of
the bride's belongings—a critical buzz went up at the
sight of the elaborate painted wedding chest, wide as a
coffin, elaborately gilded and painted with saints. Yes,
this was a wealthy bride. Grinning boys tossed flowers into
the streets, musicians thrummed lutes not quite in tune with
each other . . .
"There she is!" Anna breathed. "Blessed Virgin, will you
look at that?"
A white mare wreathed in lilies and roses, clopping
along impassively under the most glorious of Madonnas.
"Holy Mother," a voice behind me whistled to the man who
had bet the bride would be plain. "You lost your five
A cat may look at a king, they say—and a dwarf may
look at a beautiful woman. Most men will be reprimanded for
staring at a beauty, warned off by menacing looks from her
husband, or a brother's hand clapped on a dagger, or a cold
glance from the beauty herself. A man's stare means desire,
and the good women of Rome must be safeguarded from the
desires of men. But dwarves have no desires, not when it
comes to beautiful women, so no one minds if a dwarf gawps.
Besides, a beautiful woman's nose rides the air so high she
is not likely to look down far enough to see me. Caps were
doffed across the street, men bowed outlandishly in hopes of
catching the bride's eye, and I just crossed my short arms
across my chest and stared coolly.
Dio, but she was a beauty. Perhaps seventeen or
eighteen years old, laced into a rosy silk gown draped over
her mare's white flanks in suchabundant pleats that I could
list at least three broken sumptuary laws. Breasts like
white peaches, a pale column of a neck, a little face all
rosy with happiness—and hair. Such hair, glinting gold
in the sunlight, twined with pearls and tucked with
Most brides look shy, flustered, bemused. Some cry, some
titter nervously, some sit stiff as jeweled saints in a
niche. This one laughed like a pealing church bell and
kissed her hands to the crowds as she bounced in her velvet
saddle with sheer pleasure. She was having far too much fun
to cast her eyes down in a crowd like a girl of good birth
should, too much fun drinking in everything the world had to
offer. Perhaps that was why her dark eyes traveled far
enough to see me, looking back at her instead of doffing my hat.
She grinned at me—no other word for it. Grinned
and blew me a kiss as if I'd been a tall and handsome man,
and then the mare swept her past in a billow of silk and
rosewater. I wondered what her new husband was paying for
her. Likely he'd decide she was worth it.
"I wouldn't be stuck pouring drinks in a tavern if I
looked like that," Anna said wistfully. "I'd be dressed in
silk and dining with cardinals, and they'd be pouring drinks
"That's Madonna Giulia Farnese, I heard." The man who'd
lost his bet whistled as the last of the liveried servants
hurried past, and the crowd began to disperse back to its
usual business of shopping, thieving, and gossiping. "She's
for one of the Orsini. A dowry of three thousand florins!"
"I heard it was five thousand," someone else disagreed.
"And the Orsini are the ones who paid it—"
"Cheap at the price," the first man said lustfully,
nodding after the white mare. I could still see a glint of
gold where the bride's head bobbed above the crowds.
"Cheap at the price," I agreed, and escorted Anna to
market. She chattered on about the pearls in the bride's
hair, and the cost of the rose–colored gown, and
wouldn't she look pretty in rose–colored silk too if
she could ever afford it.
"Not as pretty as the bride did, though," she conceded,
and I couldn't help but agree with her. Not many women could
match Giulia Farnese, later known to all Rome as La Bella.
They should have called her La Bellissima, because from that
day to this I've never seen a woman lovelier.
In all the world, there was surely no girl as happy as
me: Giulia Farnese, eighteen years old and married at last!
Mind you, weddings aren't always such occasions for
bliss. Isotta Colonna cried all the way through her wedding
last year, and I'd have cried too if I'd been standing next
to a man so fat he was practically a sphere. Lucia
Piccolomini cried even harder; her husband was a pimply boy
of twelve. And my sister, Gerolama, looked sour as a prune
when she said her vows, but then Gerolama usually looked
sour, and at least she was a good match for her wizened
raisin of a husband. "She's lucky to get him," my brother
Alessandro had told me privately at the wedding banquet. "A
razor tongue and a nose like a blade—we haven't got
enough ducats to dower her past all that." He'd pinched my
chin judiciously. "You'll do better, I think."
And I had! It had taken time, of course—I'd have
been married at fifteen or sixteen like some of my friends,
but my father's death (God rest his soul) had put a halt to
all the various negotiations, and then my brothers had spent
another two years scraping together a better dowry for me.
"And wasn't it worth the wait?" Sandro asked, gleeful. "Not
just another provincial merchant for my little sister, but
one of the Orsini. We're lucky for this match,
sorellina—you'll live in Rome now, and better
than a duchess."
Orsino Orsini: my new husband. I had to wonder what his
family had been thinking, naming him that, but he was young!
Just a year older than me, and not a sphere either, thank
you. My new husband was lean as a rapier, fair–haired,
with eyes like . . . well, I hadn't gotten close enough to
see what color his eyes were, truth be told. We met at the
exchange of rings, and his gaze had been downcast the whole
time as he fumbled the ring onto my finger and murmured the
vows. He took one shy glance at me as I recited the words
that made me his wife, and he blushed pretty as a rose.
He was blushing now, stealing shy glances at me from
across the splendid sala. Oh, why couldn't we sit
together at our own wedding feast? We'd be sharing a bed in
a few hours; why not a table now? But Orsino in his slashed
blue doublet with green–embroidered sleeves sat at one
long table with the rest of the men, swamped by a lot of
cardinals like fat scarlet flowerpots, while I was immured
across the room with the other women, wedged between my
stout mother–in–law in her maroon silks and my
sister, Gerolama, who sat finding fault with everything.
"I've never seen such display. There must be ten different
kinds of wine at least; I only had three at mine!" I ignored
her, smiling across the room at my new husband and boldly
raising my glass to him, but he just blinked nervously.
"Did you notice the glass, Giulia?" Madonna Adriana
whispered. "All the way from Murano, diamond–point
engraving—from my cousin the Cardinal, as a wedding
gift to you. You would not believe the expense!"
Judging by the sala of his palazzo, he
could well afford it. The ceiling was high–arched and
gorgeously painted; my slippers rested on a wonderfully
woven carpet instead of plain flagstones; the long tables
were covered in blue velvet and set with gold and silver
plate. I tried not to stare, tried to look as if I were used
to such careless luxury—after all, the Farnese are a
family of noble birth in Capodimonte, I'd been raised in a
castello overlooking Lake Bolsena in surroundings of
great comfort, if not precisely this level of pomp and
glitter. But I lost all ability to look blasÃ© when the
stream of dishes began appearing, carried in by sumptuously
liveried serving men and wafting such tantalizing smells
that I had to stop myself from gobbling like a pig at a
trough. Yes, my mother–in–law's cardinal cousin
was a man of God, but he certainly believed in his luxuries.
He had bowed and kissed my hand when my procession arrived
in his courtyard, but I couldn't remember which one he
was—all cardinals look the same in those red robes,
don't they? Fortunately you don't really have to remember
their names since they're all "Your Eminence" this and "Your
Eminence" that. I flashed my dimples across the room at the
whole flock of them, a gesture of coquettish thanks I'd
practiced before a mirror as a little girl. At least until
my brother Sandro had told me to stop fluttering my lashes
because I looked like a drunken hummingbird.
"I didn't get any Murano glass at my wedding," Gerolama
"So kind of His Eminence," I whispered to Madonna
Adriana. I was already determined to get on with
her—Orsino and I would be sharing the spacious
quarters in her family's palazzo, at least to start,
and I was going to have my widowed mother–in–law
eating out of my hand if it killed me. Fortunately, she
didn't seem hard to please: just commiserate with her now
and then about the rising cost of everything, and she purred
like a cat in the cream. Later I supposed Orsino and I would
have our own home, but I was in no hurry. Madonna Adriana
could bustle with the keys and the account books all she
liked; I had no interest at all in fighting her for control
of the household. I was going to spend the rest of my days
with my feet up in the loggia and my hair spread out in the
sun, eating candied figs and playing with my beautiful fat
babies. And the rest of my nights in bed with my handsome
young husband, making more babies and committing plenty of
carnal sins to tell the priest at confession.
"The first of the desserts, sorellina." Sandro
crossed the room with a flourish of a bow, presenting a dish
for me. "Peaches in grappa—your favorite."
"You'll make me fat, brother," I complained.
"Oh well, I'll eat them then." He popped a soft spiced
peach into his mouth.
"Delicious. Madonna Adriana, your cook has outdone himself."
"Give me those!" I snatched the plate, smiling at my
elder brother. He was six years older than I, and we shared
two other brothers as well as sour Gerolama, but Sandro and
I had always been each other's favorites. We had the same
dark eyes that snapped laughter even when we were trying to
be serious, and we'd grown up making faces at each other
during Mass and getting smacked by our harried mother
whenever we smuggled a grass snake into the priest's shoe.
It had been Sandro who held me when our mother died giving
birth to a baby that didn't live. Two years ago when my
father joined her in heaven, my older brothers had been the
ones to assume the mantle of family authority, but it had
been Sandro who stroked my hair and vowed that he'd look
after me now. I'd missed my brother terribly when he went to
the university at Pisa to begin his career as a cleric, but
now he had come back to Rome to start work on the lowest
ecclesiastical rung as a notary. He wasn't a very good
notary, and I didn't imagine he'd be a very good cleric
either—Sandro adored chasing girls too much to ever
abide by any vow of chastity, and he had a theatrical streak
better suited to a jester. But even if he was the worst
churchman on earth, there was no better company to be had at
the evening cena table.
"So tell me, Sandro—" I lowered my voice as
Madonna Adriana began telling Gerolama how terribly
expensive the roast peacock had been. "Why isn't my husband
getting up from his chair to give me peaches in grappa?"
"Have some pity for the poor lad! Married at nineteen,
and not to some cross–eyed convent girl he can
intimidate, but to a nymph, a Helen, a Venus!" Sandro
thumped a fist to his heart, a dagger from the heavens. "As
Actaeon was struck down for daring to gaze upon Diana in her
glory, so young Orsino fears to gaze upon his bride in all
"Shut up, Sandro. Everyone's looking."
"You like everyone looking." Sandro grinned, coming back
down to earth. "My little sister is the vainest creature in
all God's creation."
"You sound like Mother." God rest her soul, she had
always been scolding me for vanity—"You think the Holy
Virgin worries how she looks, Giulia mia?" But from
what I could see, the Holy Virgin didn't need to worry how
she looked because she was always beautiful, in every
painting I'd ever seen of her; beautiful and serene in some
becoming blue gown–and–veil combination that had
probably been sewn by angels. We earthly girls had to put a
bit more thought into our appearance if we wanted to look
half so fine, so I just said an extra Paternoster every
morning in repentance for the sin of vanity as I plucked my
"Never mind," Sandro was saying. "Young Orsino will get
up his courage soon enough after another dance or two."
"So let's encourage him." I gave the dish of peaches a
regretful look, sucking the sweet grappa off one fingertip,
but really I'd already eaten heartily as a peasant tonight
(oh, that roast peacock, and there was some kind of
delicious pastry thing with sweet cheese and onions!).
"Dance with me, Sandro."
"Does a priest dance?" Sandro rolled his eyes up to the
heavens with great piety. "You offend my clerical dignity,
not to mention my vows."
"Your vows weren't too offended when you were flirting
with Bianca Bonadeo earlier. During my vows, mind you."
"Then a basse–danse at once."
"The basse–danse is boring!" Orsino and I
had already opened the floor with a basse–danse
earlier in the evening. All that decorous gliding around
palm to palm, and he hadn't quite had the courage to look me
in the eye. I preferred something livelier from the viols; a
tune that got my blood running, and maybe gave me a chance
to show a flash of ankle in the turns. "Let's dance la
"You're the bride, sorellina." A word to the
musicians, and a smattering of applause rose as my brother
led me out to the floor. I gave a graceful half spin,
flaring my airy rose–colored skirts to acknowledge the
applause before the lively beat of the viols began, and I
seized Sandro's hand. A beat or two as we pirouetted through
the first steps, and then Sandro put his hands to my waist
and tossed me into the air in the first lift. I knew how to
land so my skirts belled, throwing my head back and
laughing, and I dipped my bare shoulders into the
candlelight in the direction of my new husband. Look at
me, Orsino, I begged silently. Look at me, dance with
me, love me!