1636 The Flight Of The Nightingale – Snippet 08
The rest of the ride occurred in silence, but it wasn’t long before the wheels of the cart rumbled onto the streets of Fiesole.
“Take it slowly,” Francesca murmured. “He must be able to keep us in sight.”
“No fear of that,” Giulio said in return, his voice equally quiet. “I forgot today was a market day. We’ll be lucky to get to the taverna in an hour.”
And there was indeed a throng of folk on the streets, mostly carrying packages or net bags filled with produce, none of them moving very fast. Conversations were being shouted down the lengths of streets and across piazzas; so many that it wasn’t really necessary for the two of them to lower their voices. It was all they could do to hear each other in their normal tones, and they were sitting next to each other on the cart’s seat.
Francesca turned to look behind, but couldn’t see Sabatini in the crowd. She turned back, now worried, but there was nothing she could do. He knew the plan; she had to trust that he would be able to find her after she stopped.
“There’s the taverna,” Giulio said, nodding his head toward a sign painted in a blob of faded purple paint that Francesca guessed was supposed to be a bunch of grapes.
“So what do you do now?” she asked.
“After you drop off, I leave the cart with Alessandro the carter for him to return to Luigi the carter in Firenze in the next few days, and then hustle back down the road to try and make it back to the city in time for the evening’s performance.”
“Ouch,” Francesca said. “I don’t envy you.”
“Ah, not so bad,” Giulio grinned. “I have long legs, and it’s basically all downhill from here. I should make it in plenty of time.”
Francesca slipped a hand inside her coat and felt in the inner pocket of her dress. She pulled out several soldi and slipped them into his jacket pocket. Giulio felt the movement, and looked at her out of the corner of her eye. “For you and Alessandro and Luigi,” she said. “It’s not much, but I want you to have it.”
“Not necessary, Maestra,” he protested. “We agreed on this already.”
“You will take this as a courtesy to me,” she insisted. “Unless you want me to frown at you.”
“Oh, San Giovanni,” Giulio said after a snort of laughter, “Dio forfend that you should frown at us. Very well, Maestra, it will be as you have said. And here we are.”
They had finally arrived at the taverna, and Giulio brought the cart to a halt. He slipped off the seat and hurried around to help Francesca alight. Once her feet were on the ground, he enfolded her in an embrace, then released her, saying “Go with God, Maestra.”
The actor bounded back up onto the cart, shook the reins at the donkey, and in a bare moment was moving down the street.
Francesca started when Sabatini appeared at her elbow. “Don’t do that!” she snapped. The young man just returned a cheeky grin to her. She took a deep breath, then nodded at the door to the tavern. “In.”
Once through the door, Francesca realized that the outer part of the taverna was more piazza than building. Tables were scattered in the sunlight within the small paved area, and a few more were nestled under a broad loggia that crossed the front of the building. In the center of the loggia were doors to the interior of the building itself.
Francesca led the way to a table in the sun set near one of the side walls. She settled into a woven wicker chair, which settled and creaked a bit under her weight. Sabatini took the chair most between her and the piazza, and tilted his head at her.
Recognizing a query, wordless though it was, she responded, “I am tired of dim and dark rooms. I want to sit in the light as much as possible.”
“You will need a heavier coat when we get farther north, then,” Sabatini said with another of his irrepressible grins.
“May be,” Francesca said with a not-so-feigned shiver. She really didn’t like being cold. “So I will sit by the fire and dream, then.”
Sabatini nodded to acknowledge the point. “Where from here?” he continued in a low tone.
“We wait for a friend of MosÃ¨’s to show up.”
At that moment a server appeared, a woman with a lined face, which made her appear older than her probable years. “What’ll you have?”
“I was told you have a good red wine and a decent soup,” Francesca said, emphasizing the last two words slightly. “We’ll have two of each.”
“Half a soldi, then,” the woman said.
Francesca showed her the coin she had palmed out from under her coat, and the server turned away. She stopped a younger serving girl who was about to enter the door to the taverna with empty mugs, took them from her, and apparently gave her some directions, because the girl turned and went down the loggia and around the corner of the building. The older woman took the empty mugs into the taverna proper.
“Some kind of message?” Sabatini guessed, barely moving his lips.
“What I was told to order,” Francesca murmured. “And don’t ask by who.”
The boy sat back, mouth twisted a bit in dissatisfaction, but he didn’t pursue it. They sat in silence, Francesca enjoying the morning sun, until the serving woman reappeared with a tray carrying two small bowls, two small rolls of bread, and two small cups. Francesca smiled at the presumed pretensions of the taverna, serving the soup in actual pottery rather than a bread bowl.
In a moment, the contents of the tray were set before them, and Francesca and the woman exchanged a whole soldi for a half. Francesca tucked the coin bit away and pulled her pewter spoon out of her inner pocket, wiping it with her thumb to make sure that there was no lint in the bowl of it. She dipped it into the soup, and conveyed a bit of it to her mouth.
Lukewarm, which was to be expected. A bit thin — also to be expected. But it had bits of vegetables in it, and had from the taste of it had been exposed to at least the sight of a chicken in the recent past. She’d had worse, even in the Medici palaces.
Across from her Sabatini had a wooden spoon out and was slurping the soup up as quickly as he could. She smiled slightly, and ate her soup almost as quickly, if a bit more sedately, tearing pieces of bread off the fist-sized roll to dip into the soup. The bread turned out to be barley, which was fine with Francesca. She actually preferred barley bread to wheat, probably because she had eaten so much of it as a child in those times when her family hadn’t had the money to buy the more expensive wheat bread.
When Francesca finished, she wiped the spoon off on the sleeve of her coat and tucked it back into her inner pocket, then picked up her cup. The first sip almost took her breath away. She expected ordinary table wine, or even something a little less in quality. But what hit her tongue was better than that — better than anything she’d had in the palace at Firenze, if not as good as what she had had with her late husband Tommaso in his residences in Lucca. She held it in her mouth and let it trickle down her throat, with a small sigh of satisfaction at the end.
“Gently,” she murmured to Sabatini as he reached for his cup. “This is the good stuff.” She watched as he took a cautious sip, and saw his eyes widen as the taste registered. “Not too much,” she cautioned. And after a second sip, Sabatini set the cup back on the table.
They sat together in the sun, Francesca taking slow sips of the wine, separated by spaces of sunshine and silence. Francesca enjoyed it while she could, suspecting that before long she would be longing for times like this again.
“What are we waiting for?” Sabatini finally said.
Just at that moment, a third person sat down at their table, jarring it as he did so. Francesca looked over to see an older man, small in frame, gray-shot hair sticking out from under his hat and tinting his beard, dressed in clothing that at first seemed non-descript, but under a second glance was revealed to be good quality.
“Good day to you, Maestra,” he said with a nod. “And to you as well, young man.”
“Good day,” Francesca replied.
The stranger dropped his voice to not much more than a murmur. “I have an associate in Firenze who tells me that you are interested in a passage to Venezia.”
Sabatini opened his mouth, but Francesca lifted a forefinger, so he closed it and settled back in his seat.
“It is under consideration, if it is the right time of the month,” she said in the same manner, responding to the signal given in the older man’s statement.
The man shrugged. “For those with enough ducats, it’s always the right time of the month,” he said. Then he smiled. “So, you are the Firenze Maestra who needs to go someplace else.”
Francesca simply nodded.
After a moment, his smile widened. “A woman of wisdom and restraint, I see. I believe you can be seen in the last chapter of Proverbs.”
“And you are?”
“Let us say, an associate of MosÃ¨ of Firenze. You may call me Bigliamino.”
“Maestro Bigliamino, then,” Francesca responded with a small smile. The mention of the money lender in Firenze caused her to relax a bit more. He was well-known to her, and was the man she had approached when she first began laying her plans to transfer herself to the northern climes.
“And since you are here in Fiesole,” Bigliamino said, moving his head a small increment to scan the area around them with his eyes, “the logical assumption is that you want to go to Bologna.”
“Farther than that,” she continued in the quiet tone, “but Bologna first, yes.”
“Keep your goals immediate,” Bigliamino said. “A woman of wisdom, indeed. So, I have arranged a conveyance for you.” She raised an eyebrow at him, but said nothing. “There is an ox-wagon leaving very soon for the cardinal’s palace in Bologna with a cargo of spices and sundries. It will have a couple of guards riding with it, and you can ride inside the wagon box among the cargo and attract little attention. And since the cargo is for the cardinal legatus, it will not be seriously inspected by anyone. Very private. You will see.”
The cardinal legatus in Bologna, the papal nuncio who was the Pope’s governor over the city-state, was nobody Francesca wanted to see. Regardless of who it was today — and that had changed a couple of times recently, due to the upheaval within the church and Urban VIII’s leaving Rome — whoever it was would be known to the dowager duchess, so avoiding his attention would be key.
“I’m not going to the cardinal’s palace.” Francesca leaned forward, and for all that her tone was quiet, her expression apparently spoke volumes, because Bigliamino held up both hands.
“Oh, no, Maestra, you misunderstand. The wagon goes to the palace, but you will part company with the wagon before it reaches the city gates.”
Francesca relaxed and sat back. “Good. So when does this wonderful conveyance of yours leave? When should I be there?”
Bigliamino grinned. “Now would be good. The drover is waiting impatiently.”
“Then let us not keep him waiting longer.” Francesca finished her cup of wine.