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This Rough Magic: Chapter Twenty Four

       Last updated: Friday, September 12, 2003 01:18 EDT



    Maria looked around the whitewashed empty house; mostly of stone, with plaster over the stone, and a floor of flagstones. The windows were small, but they had glass in them, in wooden frames that could be opened. It wasn't much, not compared to the wooden home in Istria. The few other houses here were crowded around like quizzy neighbors. It was, on a small scale, reminiscent of Cannaregio.

    The house is a big improvement on Benito's little place in Cannaregio though, she thought, a smile tugging at her lips. You could be happy in all sorts of places, if you tried. Still, from what the porters had said, any house here on Corfu was a symbol of status. From what Maria could see, there wasn't much to build with except rock, and that had to be quarried from the main island itself. There were only a handful of houses up here between the two fortification-topped hills of the small island which formed the Citadel, Corfu's great fortress. The two hills were in a straight line running out to sea. Hence the fortress on the seaward side was called the Castel a mar; the one on the landward side, the Castel a terra.

    The town of Kérkira itself—Corfu's largest—was on the main island, separated from the Citadel by a shallow channel perhaps sixty yards wide at its narrowest dimension. The town and the Citadel were connected by a causeway and a bridge. Most of the other staff of the outpost lived between the outer and inner curtain-walls of the Citadel, or in the barracks built into the walls of the fortifications. Only a few, most of them high officials and their families, lived in one of the castles on the hill-tops.

    She pushed open the shutters, looking out over the Citadel at the bright waters, across to the brown smudge they told her was Albania. The spring sunshine licked in at her, along with the tang of salt in the breeze off the sea. Awash with a sudden need for affection Maria turned to the wicker crib, and lifted Alessia into her arms and hugged her. Alessia was sleepy, full and warm. The baby made the small groaning sound which Maria had learned meant contentment and seemed to snuggle into her.

    Maria stood there rocking her, loving her. "'Lessi. It's a home. And it's near the sea. It's peaceful... and you'll always have a mama."

    Umberto came in and smiled at the Madonna-like scene when Maria turned at his footstep.

    "How is the most beautiful, chubbiest baby on this island doing?" he asked cheerfully. Umberto's attitude towards babies, now that Alessia was born, was far more relaxed. He was as proud of the baby as any father could have been. Admittedly he still didn't look comfortable holding her, but he did delight in her.

    Maria smiled at him, her good mood spilling over onto everything around her. "She's fine."

    Umberto smiled back. "The house is good enough?" he asked, cautiously. "It is not as big as in Istria."

    "It's wonderful." That was an exaggeration, but so what? At the moment it felt a minor one. "The whole place feels welcoming."

    "Good." Umberto was plainly relieved. "They'll be bringing our boxes and things up from the ship presently. Can you come with me to be introduced to the Captain-General? Then I must get down to the Little Arsenal." He shook his head. "It is in a sorry state. The old Foreman is... well, old."



    They walked along the narrow lane up to the gray stone fortress on the hilltop. It was cool here, inside the thick walls. A guard, a bit more sloppily dressed than any Venetian Schiopettieri or one of the Doge's Swiss mercenaries, led them up to the Captain-General's office. The door was open, and the voices of those inside it were quite clear to anyone approaching.

    "We don't have accommodation for visitors, Signorina," snapped an sharp voice from inside. "I can't help it if you think that Kérkira's taverns are too low-class for you. Rent a house."

    "We have been trying to, ja."

    Maria recognized Svanhild's distinctive voice and accent. She sounded tired.

    "Everything decent they want a year's lease on. We should only be here for days," rumbled a deeper, similarly accented voice.

    That must be one of Svanhild's brothers, thought Maria.

    "Usually they hire for either the summer or winter, to fit in with the convoys," explained the sharp voice. Definitely a Venetian, probably the Captain-General himself, thought Maria. Oh, dear. Umberto would have to work under him and he did not sound like an easy man. "You should be able to negotiate a six month lease."

    "But we only want it for a few days until the east-bound convoy comes!" said the Svanhild voice, unhappily.

    Maria peered into the room. It was Svanhild indeed, and both of her large brothers. And a comparatively small, dark man at a large untidy desk. The room was generously proportioned but it looked overfull of irritated Vinlanders.

    The man at the desk sighed, snatched a piece of parchment from his desk, and scrawled something on it. "Here. Count Dentico has an estate outside of the town. He has a second villa some miles away. Perhaps he would be prepared to lease it to you for such a period. Perhaps there will be rooms enough for your escort. I do not know. Now please, I have business to attend to." He pointed to the door. "You can hire horses and a local guide at the taverna just across the Spianada. Goodbye."

    Svanhild and her brothers emerged. The statuesque blond blinked to see Maria and Umberto. "What are you doing here?" she asked, though her surprised tone made it very clear that she was not being rude.

    "We have come to see the Captain-General," said Maria. "My husband will be working here."

    Svanhild sniffed and rubbed her hot forehead, leaving a little smudge. "He is not a very helpful man," she said unhappily, and walked off, following her brothers.

    The military commander of Corfu stood up and limped across to the doorway. He looked at Umberto and Maria, and glared magnificently. "This is not an inn. Or an employment office."

    Umberto looked more than a little terrified. "My name is Verrier? I have been sent from Venice. I am to be a Foreman..."

    The glaring eyes cleared. "Ah. You must the man they've sent to deal with the Little Arsenal. We've had some problems with the local labor and the guilds." The Captain-General bowed to Maria. "This beautiful lady must be your wife. I am Captain-General Nico Tomaselli. For my sins the Council has stationed me here.

    "Come in," he added, in a more pleasant tone of voice, as he walked back to his desk. "You must tell me how I can serve you. My people were supposed to see you in to your home and invite you to come up to see me. The Little Arsenal is the heart of this outpost of the Empire."

    Maria scowled at him, behind his back, then quickly smoothed her expression into something more pleasant. She was always wary with people who handed out the flattery too liberally, especially when she'd seen the same person ready to backhand those he disliked or looked down upon. But at least he was not letting his anger with Svanhild wash onto Umberto. Though poor Svanhild could hardly know that the conditions she had found in Venice would not hold in Corfu.

    Umberto bowed. "Umberto Verrier. I am a Master-craftsman in the Guild of Caulkers. I had heard there were problems, I mean, I had been told that there were some difficulties that needed smoothing out. Could you tell me more?"

    The Captain-General shrugged. "It's quite simple, really. The local men, whom we employ as laborers in the repair-yard, are an undisciplined bunch. They'll do any job. The journeymen complain they're encroaching. The locals say that as they can't be apprenticed, why should they obey 'prentice rules? They all drink too much and get into fights about it."

    Umberto, who was a slight man, looked alarmed. "In the shipyard? But guild rules..."

    The Captain-General blew out through his teeth. "We're a long way from the guild halls of Venice, Signor. If you throw one of these guildsmen out, it may be six months before you can replace him. The Greek labor should be easy, but the honest truth is they don't much like working here. The Venetians say they're lazy. But the truth is that they're an independent lot, Greeks. Live on past glories and expect to be treated as if they were all sons of Ulysses. Or Odysseus, as they'll insist he should be called."

    Tomaselli's practiced glare was back, this time aimed at the open window and the town beyond. "I can guarantee you won't be there for more than a week before you have at least one of the Greeks calling you an uncivilized Italian upstart. There's always trouble. We've got a fair number of Illyrians from the mainland as a result. And they fight with the Greeks too." He shrugged. "As I said: There's always trouble. You'll need a firm hand. Part of the problem is that they work frantically for about six weeks a year. The rest of the time there really isn't enough work for half of them. But to keep a skilled force we've got to employ them all year round."

    Umberto had the look of man who, in the attempt to avoid a dog turd, had stepped into a scorpion pit instead.

    The town fanned out from the Citadel, on the main body of the island. Maria crossed the causeway and walked south, toward the quay-side. She had asked for directions to the market areas and got several vague pointers in this direction. It made sense: this was where the ships came in, this was where the traders would congregate. As she got closer she realized she could have just followed her nose.

    The stalls along the pavements were full of things which were both familiar and fascinatingly different. Barrows piled high with crocks of olives, bunches of dried fish, boxes of filberts, trays of fried cuttlefish, mounds of cheeses... jostled with racks of embroidered jackets and starched white fichus. Next was what was plainly a baker, with the enticing smells of fresh bread and a display of strange, sticky-looking confectionary. Maria went into the narrow little shop and up to the counter, where a little dark-eyed woman studied her with undisguised curiosity. In a smallish town like this, the shopkeepers probably knew most of their customers.

    The little women bobbed. "And how may I help you, Kyria?"

    "Kyria? What does that mean?" she asked, tilting her head to one side.

    The shopkeeper smiled at her curious and friendly tone. "You are new to Corfu. It is a polite greeting. It means 'Milady'. How do you like our town? Are you just here with the fleet or do you stay on in Corfu?"

    A woman bustled in, wearing an elegant walking dress, with her hair dressed up on combs in the height of last year's Venetian fashion. She paused briefly beside Maria, waiting for her to cede her place. Then, when Maria didn't move, shoved her aside. "Make way for your betters, woman!" she snapped.

    Maria had never taken very kindly to being pushed around, and this woman had bumped Alessia into wakefulness. Maria had broad shoulders and strong arms from sculling a gondola.

    "I'll have three dozen of those—"

    The woman found her orders cut off abruptly by a strong arm, pulling her backwards.

    "I was here first. You can wait your turn."

    The woman's jaw dropped. She caught it; pinched her lips, took a deep breath, and emitted a screeching: "Do you know who I am? You-you-" She looked at Maria's fairly plain, unfashionable garb. "You Corfiote puttana!"

    Maria put Alessia down, carefully. "I don't care who you are. But if you like I can throw you into the harbor to cool off. With luck, your head will go underwater and spare me from having to stare anymore at what the elderly maiden aunts of the Casa Vecchie were wearing last year."

    The last part of the statement made the woman's eyes bulge. She looked uncommonly like one of those fancy poodles that had become the latest fashion among the Casa Vecchie of Venice. Her eye-bulge was more fashionable than her hairstyle. "You-you- How dare you? I'll tell my husband of your insolence!"

    "Do. Then I can toss him into the harbor too," said Maria, advancing on the woman. "He's clearly not doing his duty in beating you often enough to curb that tongue of yours."

    The woman retreated, tripping over her petticoats in her haste. "You haven't heard the last of this, you Corfiote cow!"

    Maria turned back and retrieved Alessia, who was going into full wail. It took her a short while to sooth her down.

    The little woman shook her head incredulously. "Kyria, do you know who that was?"

    Maria shook her head, her temper cooling. "No. Who?"

    "That is the wife of the Captain-General! Sophia Tomaselli!"

    Maria said something very indelicate.

    The little woman just about fell apart laughing and trying to restrain herself. "They say that's what she was before the marriage."

    Maria gritted her teeth. She'd better tell Umberto about this. It was not a very promising start to their stay in Corfu. She bought some fresh bread and headed back to the house.

    Umberto's gloomy expression got deeper when she told him about it. "More troubles. I'm getting somewhere with the senior journeymen. I am not winning with the Corfiotes or the other masters. Oh, well. We must expect things to take time. There is a reception and dinner tonight for the new people sent out by the Senate. We will have to attend."



    Maria had done certain small adaptations to the dress she had worn for Kat's wedding. She only had five dresses—though that was more than she would have ever dreamed of owning once, more than most ordinary women would ever own. This one, however, was special. Francesca with her impeccable eye had picked out the fabric from among all of the gowns that had once graced Kat's mother. Francesca's dressmaker had remade it, knowing it would adorn one of the ladies who would get an enormous amount of attention at the wedding.

    The dressmaker had wanted to be absolutely certain of two things: First, that the dress would fill every aspirant of fashion in the Casa Vecchi with a desire to own it. And, second, that the owner would love the dress so much that she would send all those who asked about it to Mme. Therasé.

    And, indeed, the dressmaker had succeeded beyond her expectations, even among the haut monde of Venice. By the standards that prevailed in little out-of-the-way Corfu...

    The wine-red gown would excite envy to a fever-pitch. The red velvet, with a pattern woven into it of high and low pile, was the sort of stuff that would never go out of style and was appallingly expensive. The low, square neckline and the flattened bosom was of the very latest style, as was the natural waistline, rather than the line that came just under the bosom. As was proper in a married woman, the undergown, of the finest linen, covered most of her exposed chest, right up to the collarbone, and it was pulled through the myriad small slashings in the sleeves, which were faced with scarlet silk.

    The sleeves themselves were enormous, like a couple of hams. Maria often thought that she could probably smuggle most of what her old pole-boat used to carry in those sleeves. They ended in tight cuffs, though, which would make getting anything into them rather impractical. The beautiful pillow-lace that finished the sleeves of the undergown showed at the cuffs, and trimmed the edge of the undergown's neckline. The bodice of the overgown was sewn with tiny seed-pearls in a lattice-work pattern, a pattern that was repeated on the sleeves.

    The Captain-General's wife had worn a gown with a high waist, and no slashings in the sleeves at all. And while her gown for this festivity would probably be of more opulent materials, Maria doubted that it would be of more recent date.

    Jewelry... well, she only had two pieces. They'd not pass a jeweler's eye. But the three ropes of "pearls" of glass and fish-scale would stand up to any lesser scrutiny. Francesca had seen to that, and if anyone knew jewelry, it was a courtesan. And there were earrings to match.

    Maria felt some pride when she looked at herself in the mirror. She gave a vixenish grin at the elegant woman with her dark, lustrous hair, done up "a la didon" as Francesca had showed her. She was sorry that Caesare couldn't see her like this. Then she'd have been able to spit in his face and laugh at him. He'd always played her origins against her in a nasty game designed to keep her feeling at once utterly inferior to him and at the same time terribly grateful that he deigned to honor her with his attentions. She could see that now, with the benefit of looking back from a distance, and from the positively old age of nineteen.

    She bit her lips to redden them, make them fuller, and used just a touch of belladonna around her eyes to make the pupils widen. Umberto's sharp intake of breath when he saw her brought a smile to her face.

    She took his arm, and allowed him to reverently escort her to the reception, feeling a wave of warmth for her husband. Yes, granted, Umberto was unimaginative, often even stodgy—in bed as well as everywhere else—with not a trace of Caesare's golden charm or Benito's wit and bravura. And so what? He was conscientious, considerate, kindly; scrupulously responsible in his family duties; and, in his own sometimes-fussy and always respectable way, doted on her. That was its own treasure, after all, which she would repay in full with loyalty and affection.

    Maria did not love Umberto, not really; but, slowly and steadily, she was growing very fond of the man.



    The Captain-General and his wife stood beside the elderly Podesta and his wife to welcome the guests. Maria managed to keep an absolute dead-pan face when she was introduced. Sophia Tomaselli did not. The Captain-General's wife saw the face first. And then... just as she was about to explode, took in the elegant hairstyling and the dress. Maria smiled vaguely at her as if she'd never seen the now ashen-faced woman in her life before.

    It got worse. The Podesta's wife was frail and white-haired. She smiled at Maria with genuine warmth, instead of the Case Vecchie-greeting-the-lowly-Scoulo attitude that the Captain General and his wife adopted.

    "My dear Maria! Welcome to Corfu. I have had a letter from the Doge's ward about you, begging my kindness to a dear friend. Marco tells me you are a close friend of his wife's, who was of the Casa Montescue."

    The little white-haired woman twinkled at her husband, making light of a friendship between one of the Scoulo and a Case Vecchie longi house like Montescue. "My dear Alexio stole me away from that scamp Lodovico Montescue. Lodovico was a terrible tearaway when I was young. The scandal of the town! But very charming. I remember him with great fondness. Have you met him?"

    "I... Yes, I know him, Milady. He is a grand old man, gallant as anyone half his age. He can still be very charming."

    The Podesta's wife laughed and patted Maria's arm. "I am delighted to hear it. We must have a talk later. I can't wait to hear what that old rogue has been up to."

    "I look forward to it, Milady," said Maria with trepidation. How would she cope with Casa Vecchie gossip? It was bad enough keeping your mouth shut, in case your tongue betrayed your origins in a crowd, where everyone simply said polite nothings. Back then—several lifetimes ago it seemed—she'd dreamed of being fine enough to be a Casa Vecchie wife for the aristocratic Caesare. Well, a master-craftsman's wife stood far lower on the social scale, but it was still a long step from "canal-woman." A one-on-one conversation would be hell. But for Umberto's sake she'd had to try.

    Maria couldn't help flicking a glance at the Captain General and his wife. Sophia Tomaselli's face was white under her make-up, and two red spots burned in her cheeks. Maria didn't need to look at her fulminating eyes to know that she'd acquired an enemy for life. Aside from their confrontation... now, thanks to Marco's well-meaning attempt to smooth her path, the woman also knew that Maria and Umberto had powerful political connections. If Maria knew anything about that kind of woman, the Captain-General's wife wouldn't let that stop her. She'd just honey her spite in public—and plot, scheme and gossip in private. And doubtless nag that husband of hers. He, poor man, obviously knew his wife's expressions well. He was already looking nervous.



    Then, Maria realized she'd done more than merely make the Captain-General's wife look like she was wearing her mother's unaltered gown, which someone like Sophia Tomaselli would consider an insult of the first water.

    Umberto smiled at her. "Phillipo here tells me you have quite stolen Signora Tomaselli's thunder, my dear. She is used to being the center of attention; everyone in our community considered her to be the most beautiful lady on the island. Tonight there are far more people looking at you. You cast her into the shade."

    He meant it well, but Maria was hard-pressed not to groan. All it needed was that! She looked across the hall to where Sophia was saying something to two other women. They both suddenly glanced at her. And hastily looked away.

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