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1636 The Flight of the Nightingale: Chapter One

       Last updated: Monday, October 7, 2019 18:13 EDT




September 1636

    Francesca stuffed the last folder of paper into her bag and forced it closed, fastening the closure and making sure the hasp stayed put. The last thing she wanted or needed right now was that bag flopping open and all the pages inside spilling out. She looped the strap over her left shoulder, and tucked the bag under her left armpit.

    She looked around the room. So many memories here, good and bad. So many things that were being left behind. Pinching the bridge of her nose to forestall welling tears, Francesca took a deep breath, then dropped her hand to smooth the front of her skirt. It was very common, much less ornate than her usual wear, made of rougher linen and dyed with cheaper dyes. Picking up the dark cloak that was much richer than her dress, she swirled it over her shoulders. She looked to the slight figure that stood by the door.

    “Who are you again?” Her voice was curt.

    “Marco Sabatini.”

    Her new attendant’s voice was smooth, sexless, and of a moderately low pitch. It sang well to her ear, but more importantly, it wasn’t a voice that was very familiar to anyone in the palace tonight. That was important — critical, even — to their success.

    “Yes, you are. Remember that. And what is the plan?”

    “You go out the door. I set the bar in its brackets, then go out the window and close the shutters behind me, making sure the latch falls into place.”

    “And where do we meet?”

    “At the north end of the garden loggia just before the small gate.”

    Francesca gave a nod. “Good. And you have the wine?”

    Sabatini nodded at a small wineskin leaning against the back wall of the room by the open window.

    “Good,” Francesca repeated. She took a deep breath, then said, “Let’s do it.”

    Sabatini turned and pulled the door open enough to stick his head out into the corridor and look both ways. Then he straightened and gave an urgent wave of his hand. Francesca pulled the hood of the cloak up over her head and stepped past Sabatini into the hallway, which was empty for the moment.

    Of course, it was supposed to be empty. They had planned on it being empty, because at that hour of the night it usually was. But there was always a possibility that some drunken member of the court, slacker of a servant, or lost visitor could wander into sight around one of the corners. Francesca hurried down to the next cross-corridor. Behind her the light dimmed as the door closed, leaving her just the faint illumination from the lantern hanging at the far end of the corridor. A moment later she heard the bar drop into place on the door. So, that part of the plan was working.

    Francesca turned into the cross-corridor and released the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. Now she was in the back halls of the palace, the ways usually only traveled by servants, and at this hour of the night this stretch was usually empty. In a few more hours it would be bustling, but for now it was as quiet as the catacombs in Roma…and almost as dark.

    She walked as quietly as she could, but she was wearing sensible solid shoes tonight, not her usual palace slippers, and they made enough noise that Francesca was constantly looking around to see if anyone had heard her go by. But it didn’t take long before she reached the outside door where servants could exit to pass into the gardens or take a more direct route to another part of the palace than through the various hallways.

    Here Francesca had no choice. She had to unbar the door to get out, and once she was out she would have no way to put the bar back up. She would just have to hope that no one would come by and discover the situation until she was well on her way away from the palace.

    She gently slid the bar out of its brackets, and equally gently set one end on the floor and leaned the other into the nearby corner, out of the way, where it wouldn’t go sliding down the wall or fall over.

    The click as Francesca tripped the latch seemed to resound in the empty hall, and she froze for a moment, shoulders hunched. But there was no sound, no query, no outcry behind her triggered by the noise, so she opened the heavy door with care. She had surreptitiously spread a little olive oil on the hinges a few days before, and it seemed to have paid off, as the door opened with little noise. She slipped through the doorway as soon as the opening was large enough, then pulled the door closed behind her, striving to minimize the noise. The noise as the latch engaged was less noticeable out here in the open air, and she hoped that no one had come by to hear it inside.

    She gathered the cloak around her. It looked like she had beat Sabatini here, so she stepped into the shadow of the loggia to wait for him.



    Sabatini closed the door and slipped the bar back into place. He stepped to the doorway of the bedchamber to make sure the bundle under the blankets still was in place. He knew it wouldn’t fool anyone who closed on the bed, but it might distract anyone who just gave a quick glance into the room.

    He crossed to the table where the small candle stand was placed. Before he blew the candle out, he looked around the room one more time. Francesca Caccini — La Cecchina — The Nightingale, as she was known in the Medici court in Firenze — had lived and worked in these rooms off and on for a long time, except for the years of her second marriage to Tommaso Raffaelli, a very minor nobleman, where she had mostly resided in his homes in Lucca. But even then, she had returned for visits to the court from time to time, at which times she would reoccupy the rooms for as long as she needed them. It was one of the advantages of being a favorite of Grand Duchess Christina. So in this Year of Our Lord 1636 few in the court could remember a time when she hadn’t been in those rooms there, especially after she had returned to the court full-time in 1633 after Tommaso’s death and the ravages of plague in the country. It was hard for her to leave, but it was her decision to go. After the death of her son, there was nothing left to hold her here, and Sabatini couldn’t blame her.

    Everything that was left behind was in its place: pens, rules, parchment, cheap paper for drafting; all lay in boxes on the table. Fancy court clothes were in the chests in the bedchamber. Her lute hung from a peg on the wall. That had almost broken Francesca’s heart to leave behind, Sabatini knew, but it would have hampered her flight, and made it much easier for someone — or someones, he thought — to track her. In the end, he had been able to convince her to leave it. He crossed to it and ran his finger across the top of it. For luck, he told himself.



    Sabatini turned back to the table and blew out the candle, then moved to the window. He pushed open the shutters, thankful that they had thought to apply some olive oil to the shutter hinges the same day they had oiled the kitchen door. They opened silently because of that. He reached down and picked up the wineskin and hefted it through the window, setting it on top of the rosebush that sat just to the left of the window opening. Then he sat down on the window ledge, swung his legs up and through the opening, and dropped off it to the ground, ducking his head as he did so to clear the top of the window frame. It was a superior apartment — ground floor, at that — in the Palazzo Pitti, one of the major residences of the Medici family in Firenze, but still was for one who was considered — mostly, even after her marriage to Raffaelli — a servant, after all, he thought. The window accordingly wasn’t very large. Francesca had been promised a glass casement in the window for the last several years, but somehow the palace major never seemed to find the monies in his budget to make it happen.

    He brought the two shutter leaves close together, ready to shut them, but before he did he checked to make sure the thread he had run in the late afternoon around the latch arm on the left shutter was still in place running up and over the top of the shutter. It was there, so he closed the shutters, pulling slightly on the thread ends to lift the latch arm. It took a couple of tries before he heard the click as the latch arm settled in place.

    A quick pull on the shutters confirmed that they were properly latched. Sabatini pulled one end of the thread until it was all free of the shutter, winding it into a small ball which he tucked into a pocket. One never knew when a nice long piece of thread might be handy, after all.

    Picking up the wineskin, Sabatini headed around the perimeter of the courtyard toward the loggia. He didn’t want to keep Francesca waiting. Their plan was pretty tightly scheduled.



    Francesca stepped out as a shadow moved by the loggia pillars. She was tense, but relaxed when the light from a nearby torch flickered over Sabatini’s face.

    “Any problems?” she whispered.

    “After all the practices? No.” Sabatini’s voice was just as hushed. “You?”

    “Didn’t see or hear anyone,” she replied.

    “But did anyone see or hear you?”


    They looked back down the loggia, then toward the gate that was their goal.

    Francesca took a big sigh. She reached up and folded her hood back, revealing her face, her put up hair, and the dangling earrings that swayed as she moved her head. Sabatini held up the wineskin, and Francesca took it. “Time for the next step, I suppose.”

    Sabatini said nothing, simply faded back into the shadows. Francesca took another deep breath, then headed for the gate.

    The guards tonight were Giuseppe and Ercole, two of the regulars who usually had the night shift on Martedì. They were rascals, at best, whose accents and remarks indicated they were not from Firenze originally. Francesca thought they were from one of the northern regions.

    They also just happened to be the two guards who had the most regular arrangements with those who supplied certain comforts to members of the court without necessarily going through the proper channels for import duties due the city and state of Firenze in the person of Grand Duke Cosimo.

    Francesca was an occasional client of one of their suppliers, so she knew the two guards, and they knew her. More importantly, they knew her as a customer, not an interloper. That was important.

    “Maestra Caccini,” Giuseppe called out when she stepped into the pools of light cast by their lanterns. “Are you expecting someone? We hadn’t heard.”

    “No, no,” Francesca replied. Her short laugh sounded a bit forced to her, but neither of the guards seemed to notice anything. “Or, not exactly. Benito sent me word that he might have something small for me tonight or tomorrow, so I thought I’d stop and see.”

    “No, Maestra,” Ercole said. As usual, Francesca had to bite her lip to keep from laughing at the thin reedy tones his voice produced. If ever a man could say that he was cursed by his name, it was Ercole. Francesca had never met anyone who looked less like a Hercules than Ercole; thin, bony, round-shouldered, long-necked, jug-eared, and above all, short. It made him the inevitable butt of rough jokes from his fellow guards, but from what Francesca had seen, he kept a good humor about it, and gave as good as he got.

    “No, we have not seen Benito tonight,” Ercole continued without realizing her thoughts. He looked at his partner. “And we hadn’t heard that he planned on coming by any time this week.” Giuseppe nodded in agreement.

    “Ah, well, I must have misunderstood, then. Do let me know if you hear from him.”

    “Certainly, Maestra,” Giuseppe said. “We certainly will.”

    The guards were on their best behavior. Francesca was well aware of the fact that if she had been a simple serving woman or kitchen worker, their attitudes would have been considerably more casual and would have involved physical contact. Even though the Grand Duchess was now dowager and no longer the regent over the duchy, she still had a great deal of power and authority behind the scenes, and a certain amount of protection flowed from her to cover Francesca. It would take rank and standing much higher than these men would ever possess to counteract that. Which didn’t mean that there weren’t those in the court who might try. A knot in her stomach reminded her of that fact.

    Francesca looked down almost as if surprised, and lifted the wineskin that she was holding. “I believe I promised you good men some wine a couple of weeks ago. Sorry it took me so long, but I do keep my promises. This is yours.”

    “Madonna bless you, Maestra!” Ercole exclaimed as Giuseppe reached out greedy hands for the wine. “We were late to supper, and all they had left to drink was some really sour beer. We are dry as a desert, standing here.”

    Francesca laughed and handed the wineskin to Giuseppe, who popped the stopper out of the neck of the skin and lifted it up to pour wine into his open mouth with a very practiced motion. After a moment, Ercole reached up and pulled his arm down. “Pig! Swine! Glutton! You will not swill it down before I get my share.”

    Giuseppe coughed, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, and surrendered the skin to his partner. “Delizioso, Maestra! Very fine, very sweet, the blessings of all the saints upon you for remembering poor Giuseppe and poor Ercole standing lonely watch in the middle of the night.”

    There followed bows, first by one of them, then by the other, then by both together, until Francesca held up her hands laughing, saying, “Enough, enough. You like it, that’s good. Just keep an eye out for Benito, all right?”

    “Si, Maestra,” Ercole said as Giuseppe snagged the wineskin again. “We will certainly do that. Give me that,” he snarled at his partner the next moment, grabbing for the skin.

    Francesca turned and retreated into the shadows again, moving back to where she had left Sabatini. When she heard his “Psst,” she stepped sideways into the darker pool of shadows around one of the loggia columns, pulling her hood back up over her head to help shade the lighter skin of her face.

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