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1636 The Flight of the Nightingale: Chapter Two

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



    They watched the two men pass the wineskin back and forth, until it was empty enough that Ercole held it above his face and let the last few drops drip onto his tongue before he threw it to one side and began to curse Giuseppe for drinking the lion’s share of the wine.

    “How long will it take?” Sabatini murmured.

    “Not long,” Francesca whispered back. “The opium is strong.”

    “And will they stay asleep?”

    Francesca smiled. “There was enough in the wine that they could sleep for two days.”

    “Is that why you mixed so much honey in it?”

    “Partly, and partly because it helped hide the fact that it was good wine, not the cheaper stuff they usually get. Lots of wine sellers mix honey with cheap wine to make it sweeter and mask the taste, and guys like this who only get the cheap stuff get used to it.”

    “There they go,” Sabatini said as Giuseppe dropped onto a stool and lolled back against the wall by the gate.

    “Wait,” Francesca said, placing a hand on Sabatini’s shoulder as he started to move forward. “Ercole’s not down yet.” And indeed, the scrawny guardsman was staggering around in a drunken circle, lurching first to one side then the other, before he finally made contact with a wall and slid down it to end with his feet splayed before him and his head lolling to one side. “Wait,” Francesca said again. She counted over sixty heartbeats before she lifted her hand. “Now, quietly.”

    The two of them slipped back into the lamplight before the gate. Francesca stepped carefully through the tangle of feet and leaned over to relieve Giuseppe of the large key that hung from his belt. Her heart stopped when he snorted as she pulled the key free, but he just turned his head to the other side and began snoring.

    Picking her way back out again, she stepped over to the gate where Sabatini was already lifting the bar out of its brackets. She opened the large clumsy lock with the key, and pushed the gate open. They walked through it, then closed it again. She examined the gate in the moonlight. There was no sign of a lock on the outside, so she pulled the gate open again, enough that she tossed the key to land in Ercole’s lap, then closed it again.

    “Come.” Francesca turned and hurried down the path that led from the gate toward the city. They passed through the gardens until they arrived at a portal through the garden wall. That one she had a key to. An unofficial key, needless to say, but probably all of the senior servants of the palace had one. Everyone needed a private way to leave and return from time to time, after all.

    Once they were outside the wall, she looked to her right. The Forte di Belvedere loomed from that direction. It was still referred to as ‘the new fort’ by all residents of Firenze, even though it was nearly as old as she was. Tonight, it was a landmark, large and mostly dark and silent.

    “You know this would have been a lot easier if we could have taken the corridor,” Sabatini whispered.

    The Corridoio Vasariano — the Vasari Corridor — was an enclosed corridor that ran from the Palazzo Pitti to the Palazzo Vecchio, the main governmental palace, crossing the Arno River atop the Ponte Vecchio Bridge. And yes, it would have been very much easier to make their way out of the palace and cross the river using it.

    “Easier to cross, but impossible to escape,” she hissed back. “And you know it. So stop talking stupid.”

    There was no more talk. Francesca led the way down Via di Bardi and its successor roads until they reached the Ponte di Rubaconte. It was a moonless night, and they were able to slip across the bridge without attracting attention.

    Once on the northern bank, they headed back to the west. Francesca didn’t slow down until nearly to the Ponte di Vecchio. Once she could clearly see the Tower dei Mannelli, she felt some of her tension drain away, and she stopped.

    “Come on,” Sabatini muttered, taking her arm. “We need to keep moving. The night watch might come by.”

    “All right,” Francesca said, gathering herself up and getting her feet moving again. “This way.” She led them down to a cross street and around another corner.

    “Where are we going?” Sabatini asked.

    “To the Teatro Mediceo,” Francesca replied.

    “The theatre?” Sabatini’s voice raised in astonishment, the first time Francesca had heard an emotion from him. “Why?”

    “Because that’s where we’re going to meet Barbara and get our packs.”

    “Ah.” Sabatini was silent for the rest of that part of the journey.

    Francesca knew this part of town well, as she had more than once been involved in a production by providing either newly written music or arrangements of existing songs to be performed in conjunction with plays. The Medici family had given her a certain amount of latitude as she grew older, and was no longer the almost-notorious older girl/young woman musician that her father had trotted out before the wealthy of Firenze, Tuscany, and France. And she had saved much of the money she had earned, which was one of the reasons she was able to do what she was doing now.

    “Hsst,” Francesca said as Sabatini started past the mouth of an alley. “In here.” She turned up the alley, and heard him coming in behind her.

    Francesca had to slow down. The alley was so narrow that the moonlight wasn’t penetrating its darkness well. She stayed to one side of the alley, avoiding the muck and noisome debris that she knew was in the middle, even if she couldn’t see it. “One…” she counted a door as she went by, “two…three…” At “four…” she stopped and knocked gently on a door, in a staggered rhythm.

    After a moment, the door opened a hand’s breadth with a scraping sound from its bottom edge. “In whose name?” a voice whispered roughly through the gap.

    “San Giovanni Battista,” Francesca whispered back.

    The door opened wider. “In,” the voice urged.



    Sabatini snorted at the password — using the name of the patron saint of the city of Firenze didn’t seem to him to be very secret or secretive. Then he shrugged — on the other hand, it would be easy to remember, and who expected secret signs on an event like this, anyway?

    Once they were in, the door closed softly behind them, and someone opened a gate in a lantern to release a flood of golden light. He blinked, and discovered that they stood in the backstage of the theatre, in a corner filled with tied off ropes that ran into the darkness above them.

    Holding the lantern was a large woman with plump flushed cheeks and obviously hennaed hair. From behind Sabatini slipped a stick of a woman not much taller than himself, whose hair shone a brassy gold in the lantern light. That also seemed to be an improbable color to occur naturally.



    “Barbara,” Francesca said.

    It took a moment for Sabatini to recognize the other woman as a popular actress in the Mediceo theatre company who was usually proclaimed as “Isabella.” Of course, probably every fourth actress in northern Italy used the stage name “Isabella”, as a link to the famous actress of the previous generation, Isabella Ardeini, who had trod the boards before every noble family of Italy and France in her time. Her name still carried a certain weight in theatre circles.

    The large woman reached out a hand to her. “This way, Maestra…”

    “No names,” Francesca interjected hurriedly.

    “As you wish,” Barbara said as she drew Francesca to a nearby stool beside a rickety table. “Here, sit, let us transform you. Renata, take the cloak.”

    Francesca threw back the hood and undid the throat fastening so that the smaller woman could whisk the cloak away before Francesca sat on the stool. Renata returned in a moment, and unbound Francesca’s hair so that it hung loose, then took a comb and began to attend to the hair to smooth it out.

    Meanwhile, Barbara looked at Francesca, then took her hand and grasped Francesca’s chin to move her head slightly into different angles in the light. “Hmm,” she muttered. She turned away and picked up a few things from the table. Turning back, she said, “Open your mouth.” When Francesca did so, she inserted something on each side, then stepped back. “Close your mouth.”

    Sabatini moved far enough back that he could see all of Francesca’s face. It looked different, somehow. Barbara looked at Francesca, then gave a definite nod.

    “Here’s the deal, dear. You’ve seen us do stage makeup, and we could teach you to do that, but it wouldn’t serve your purpose. Stage makeup is designed to make an impression from twenty, thirty, fifty feet away, with bold colors and lines. Up close, in a room or on the street, it would look horrible and would attract attention, which is the last thing you want. So what we’re going to do is just change you a little bit, so that you look normal, but don’t look like you did. To begin with, those pads I put in your mouth change your cheek lines. Someone might look at your eyes and forehead and think it’s you, but when they get to the cheeks they’d decide it can’t be you. That’s one change.”

    Barbara picked up a small round jar. “This is a bit of goose grease mixed with a bit of gray ash. A smidge of that rubbed in just below the eyes will create a shadow that makes them look older and very tired.” She proceeded to apply it lightly. When she stepped back, Sabatini could see the shadows that had been created under Francesca’s eyes, which did indeed create an effect of weariness. He nodded. That, combined with the cheek pads, really made her look different.

    Meanwhile, Renata has finished combing out Francesca’s hair and had plaited it into a single braid which she coiled around the back of her head and thrust a long hair pin through it to hold the mass in place. Barbara looked at that, and quirked her mouth.

    “If you were going to stay in Firenze, or in any of the nearby large town where you could find supplies, you could always put henna on your hair, or one of those herbal rinses that change the color a bit. But if you’re going to be on the move, you can’t count on finding the supplies quickly to make that change. So I suggest that you leave your hair its normal color, and just wear it in the simplest styles, like any woman of the country would do. Don’t present it in a courtly style, in other words, and it shouldn’t call anyone’s attention to it. But if for some reason you desperately need to change the color a bit, then rub some of this…” she held up the ash and goose grease jar “…into your hair. The grease will darken the color, and the ash will dull it a bit. Just don’t get your hair near a torch or candle until after you get it washed out, or you will become a living candle.”

    Sabatini shivered at that thought…goose grease-laden hair would indeed light up like a torch if even lightly touched with a flame for a moment. He swallowed.

    “Stand up,” Barbara said. Francesca did so. Sabatini noted that she hadn’t said anything since right after they’d entered the theatre. That wasn’t like her. Francesca normally had plenty to say, and was well known for wanting to have the final word in any conversation. He kept an eye on her, just to make sure she wasn’t getting sick or something.

    Barbara walked around Francesca, slowly, looking her up and down from every angle as she did so. “The blouse, the vest, the skirt…they are right for what you are trying to do. And the other clothes in the bag we packed will work with them…you can swap pieces in and out to change appearance easily. But you need something else…Renata, bring me the miller’s wife’s apron.”

    The other woman spun on her toes and scurried off into the gloom. Barbara turned back to Francesca and waved at the stool. “Sit, sit. And take off your shoes.”

    Francesca did so, handing them off to Sabatini, then received another pair of shoes from the actress. “Try those to see if they fit.”

    Francesca slipped them on, and nodded. “Well enough. A bit loose, maybe, but if I’m on my feet all day, it won’t take long for my feet to swell up and they’ll be snug enough then.”

    “Right,” Barbara said with a chuckle. “Tell me about swollen feet. A three-act show that has a double performance on Sabato or Domenica, and they almost have to cut my shoes off my feet by the end of the day.” She held out her hands. “Take my hands and stand up. Take my hands,” she said sharply as Francesca started to move without doing so.

    Francesca frowned, but did so and rose, only to lean and almost fall to one side. Sabatini moved to take that elbow to support her. “What…”

    Barbara held her hands strongly, and said, “That’s why I wanted you to take my hands. The shoes are not the same height, and the first time people wear something like that they get off-balance very easily. Steady now?”

    Francesca nodded, still frowning. “I think so, but why am I wearing mismatched shoes?”

    Barbara dropped her hold and backed away a few steps. “Walk toward me. Carefully!” That last was uttered in a snap as Francesca lurched and tilted again as she tried to move. Sabatini stayed at her side. They made their way with care across the space, until Francesca was again standing right before the actress.

    “You, Sabatini,” Barbara said, “bring the stool over here.”

    Sabatini did so once he was certain that Francesca wasn’t going to fall over when he let go of her elbow. She sank onto the stool with obvious relief.

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