Florence, Italy, 1300s
“Pampinea! You’re not wearing that to dinner, are you?” her mother scolded.
The girl looked down at her dress in some surprise, expecting to see a tear or stain that had met with her mother’s disapproval. But everything seemed to be in order. “Yes, I was planning to,” she admitted. “What’s wrong with it?”
“It’s old,” her mother judged, shooing her back up to her room. “And shabby. You must look nicer at dinner tonight! Lucia!” she added, summoning the maid. “Open the closet. Take that dress off her. Now, let’s see…” She began to peruse her daughter’s collection of dresses.
Pampinea tried to maneuver away from the maid who was attempting to undress her. “But, Mother, why must I—“ She froze suddenly, horrifying realization dawning. “He’s coming to dinner again, isn’t he?” She spoke the pronoun the way one would handle a dead roach.
Her mother rolled her eyes. “Gerbino de la Ratta has graciously agreed to be our dinner guest this evening,” she corrected insistently.
“You mean he’s forced himself on us again,” Pampinea muttered sullenly.
“Pampinea Anastagi!” her mother snapped. “You will not display that sort of attitude towards our guest!” She sighed. “Signore de la Ratta is a very important man in town and has been very generous in support of your father,” she tried to explain, once again.
“Well we all know why that is,” the girl said crossly. Her mother gave her a warning look. “It’s true!” she insisted. “All he does is stare at me and ask ridiculous questions—about if I remember names and places I’ve never heard of! Neil Armstrong, Joe DiMaggio, Boris Karloff… He says he’s testing my education but I’m sure he’s just making them up.”
During her daughter’s speech Alessia had been rummaging in the closet. “Here, perhaps this one,” she decided, pulling out a pale blue gown. “Signore de la Ratta brought this back for you from Milan. You should wear it.”
“I hate the dresses he brings me!” Pampinea declared. “They’re always cut too low.”
“So he hasn’t a good eye for measurements,” her mother shrugged. “Put it on!” The girl had little choice but to obey. “Signore de la Ratta is a very wealthy man,” she reminded her daughter, “who can keep you in the style you expect. Though I don’t know why he should have taken an interest in you, sullen creature,” she added, seeing her daughter’s sour expression.
“He’s a gambler, and a thief, and a villain,” Pampinea insisted, struggling with the dress. “He’s persecuting poor Lorenzo—“
“Do not let me hear you say another word about Lorenzo di Lamberti!” Alessia insisted. “He is a gambler and a thief—and with nothing to show for it, either. Your father’s already said he’s not to be hanging about here anymore.”
“De la Ratta doesn’t like it, hmm?” Pampinea guessed sarcastically.
“Your father doesn’t like it,” Alessia corrected. “Now wash up. And don’t dawdle! You know how impatient Signore de la Ratta gets.”
Gerbino de la Ratta drummed his fingers on the hilt of his sword—very impatiently—while standing in the Anastagis’ foyer. He glanced idly at a piece of pottery on a table, then, feeling the urge to spit, spat into it and considered himself polite for not spitting directly on their floor. That was what he called ‘making an effort.’
His assistant, Andreucio, stood nearby, trying not to fidget. He quite loathed these visits his employer insisted upon making to the Anastagi home—sure, they were one of the wealthiest families in all of Florence, but was Andreucio ever allowed to join in with the high-powered conversations about business and politics? No, he was sent off to eat in the kitchen—with the virtuous maid and ill-tempered cook. All because his master had conceived a passion for the Anastagi girl. Granted, she was lovely, but more like a marble statue than a real woman, in Andreucio’s opinion, and she clearly didn’t care for Gerbino at all. But his opinion was never asked for.
It didn’t take Gerbino long to act once he heard the news that the Anastagi parents had perished in the plague. “Where is Signorina Anastagi?” he demanded of the maid who opened the door.
Her tear-swollen eyes followed the men streaming into the house with dismay. “She’s at the church, sir,” Lucia answered. “What are you doing?”
“This house and all its possessions are now mine. You work for me,” Gerbino declared off-hand. “I’d show you the legal document between Signore Anastagi and myself, but I doubt you can read.” The words ‘legal document’ impressed her enough, though. “Pack some clothes for your mistress. We’re going to stay in the country for a while. We’ll need a priest as well. For the wedding,” he added pointedly, seeing her confused expression. It didn’t go away. “Never mind why. Just do as you’re told.”
“Wait here,” Gerbino ordered Andreucio, who stopped short at the door of the church. The little boot-licker would follow him to the privy if allowed. Gerbino proceeded into the high-ceilinged church, glancing up at the half-finished frescos high above. When it was finished this place would be breathtaking, a spiritual and artistic delight to thousands of tourists each year, if increasingly fewer actual parishioners. Right now it looked a bit pathetic, with the scaffolding and sheets and bare patches—and the rows and rows of empty pews, its congregation thinned considerably by the plague.
Speaking of which—a slender figure in dark mourning clothes knelt humbly before the altar, where a candle burned between two miniature portraits. The plague did not distinguish between the rich and poor, or the loved and hated.
Gerbino cleared his throat at a respectful distance, then continued his approach. “I have come to offer you my sympathies, Signorina Anastagi,” he told the young woman.
She sniffled under her dark veil. “Thank you, Signore de la Ratta,” she replied tonelessly.
Gerbino hesitated, then knelt down beside her at the rail. He could appreciate that the situation called for delicacy; he just wasn’t certain if he could summon it. “Signorina Anastagi—Pampinea,” he corrected himself, with some warmth, and he noticed the stiffening of her spine. “I’m sure you realize I have long harbored a great affection for you,” he began, watching her closely. “I would be honored if you would allow me to—“
“Please, Signore de la Ratta—“ the girl interrupted.
“Gerbino,” he told her quickly.
“I appreciate your—sympathies,” she went on, still staring straight ahead, “but perhaps now is not the best time.”
“Under ideal conditions, of course, you would be correct,” he agreed, “but times being what they are”—i.e., with a third of the city, indeed the continent, dropping dead of the plague—“now is precisely the best time.”
“Signore—Gerbino, please forgive me, my mind is occupied with other thoughts,” Pampinea said flatly. “Please speak plainly.”
“Very well.” He stood and backed off a bit, as his nearness clearly made her uncomfortable. “All your father’s property and possessions now belong to me, and you are to be my wife.”
That got her attention. “What?” She stared at him in utter confusion through the veil.
“Your father was greatly in debt. He owed money to almost every businessman and merchant in town,” Gerbino explained briskly. “He borrowed money from me to pay them all off, with the security for the loan being his estate—and you.” It was a great deal of money, after all. Gerbino had seen to that. “Unfortunately before he was able to pay me back—well—“
“He died,” Pampinea supplied, dropping back onto her heels as the situation sunk in.
“Precisely,” Gerbino confirmed. “I have a legal document to this effect, of course…” He knelt before the girl again and took her hand, though she seemed rather stunned. “Pampinea,” he murmured, bringing her hand to his lips. “The important thing is that I’ll be able to take care of you now. You won’t be alone.” Wasn’t that what all these women were taught to want? “It’s all being arranged right now. We’ll go to your father’s villa—my villa—our villa—and be married. We’ll get out of this plague-infested city. You needn’t worry about anything.” And eventually, her memory would return—at least, he hoped so, because he would hate to spend the rest of his days trying to be nice to a simpering girl who loathed him.
She hadn’t really heard anything he said and her hand lay limp in his. “But—Count Dzerzhinsky—“ she blurted. “I am promised to marry him already. He is on his way here from Novgorod.”
Well, so much for delicacy. “That was a bad match,” he replied. “I advised your father against it. I’m sure the Count will—find someone else.”
Pampinea stood suddenly, pulling her hand from Gerbino’s and turning away to pace before the stained-glass windows. She yanked the veil from her face and he could see that she was paler than usual, with dark circles under her eyes. No doubt she’d lost much sleep thinking about her future lately, and what he was telling her did not match what she’d been led to believe. Well, whose fault was that? “But sure the Count’s previous claim supersedes yours?” she asked tactlessly.
Gerbino stood, unoffended by her apparent preference for a man she’d never met before. “Yes, I can see how you would think that,” he replied condescendingly, “but those of us who have been educated about the law understand it better.” I.e., she was right, so he intended to cheat. “Come. Your maid is packing your things now. We can be at the villa by Saturday.”
After all that he had done for her, planned for her, moved mountains to accomplish for her—Gerbino took a deep breath and tried to calm himself. She didn’t know any better. She was just acting as she’d been raised, and she’d been raised quite sheltered, with silly romantic notions. Still, he had limits.
“You’re to marry me anyway,” he pointed out through gritted teeth. “I don’t need to bargain for it and I don’t need your agreement.” The Middle Ages were a wonderful time—to be a man.
“Nonetheless,” Pampinea told him boldly, “you will let Lorenzo go free first, or you will find the marriage bed to be a very cold one. Do you understand me? I will not give what I have to give.”
Gerbino blinked at her, slightly taken aback that she hadn’t considered the idea that if she weren’t willing to give, he might just take. He wasn’t sure if she felt confident he would never do that, or if she merely hadn’t thought of it. Perhaps she’d been sheltered from that idea as well.
She obviously thought her threat had confounded him. “Very well,” he agreed slowly, drawing closer to her. She backed up until she hit the wall. “I will let Lorenzo go, and I will trouble him no more as long as he does not trouble me.” A promise he might or might not decide to keep, of course. “And you will marry me willingly, with all appropriate… ardor,” he added, looking her up and down speculatively.
He was quite close to her now, close enough to lean down and hiss in her ear. “And if I find that you have already given away what you have to give—to that thief Lorenzo—things will go badly for both of you.” She blanched at the threat, but did not look terribly guilty—he guessed she hadn’t actually done it, but perhaps she’d thought about it.
The priest—whom Gerbino was quite suspicious of, in both authority and motivation—had assigned him a penance of thirty days’ abstinence from sex, starting on the day of his wedding no less. Not that Gerbino really intended to abide by that nonsense. But, having won the day—he got the girl and the property, and had sent his rivals di Lamberti and Dzerzhinsky slinking away—he felt he could afford to give Pampinea a little time to adjust to the situation.
The villa was beautiful, quiet. Supplies were sometimes hard to come by because no one was eager to enter the cities, whose streets were strewn with corpses—but there was no shortage of servants who wanted to escape the urban environment. Fortunately, Gerbino had no fear of the plague attacking him, or Pampinea.
She spent most of her time wandering in the gardens, staring at the lush grass or brilliant blue sky as if hoping to see some trace of those she’d loved and lost. Gerbino was content to believe that meant only her parents—until he came upon her a week later, pondering a locket di Lamberti had given her.
Then, he lost his temper.
“No, no, let me go!” Pampinea screeched, trying to plant her heels on the flagstone floor as Gerbino dragged her down the hallway.
“Let you go? I haven’t even had you yet!” Gerbino scoffed meanly, yanking harder. The servants rushed out at the sound of their voices, but they knew better than to interfere. “I want to see what else of mine that thief stole!” Gerbino bellowed, hauling her into his bedroom. He didn’t even bother shutting the door behind them, just pinned her against the massive bed and tried to contain her clawing hands. “Are you going to give me what you promised to give? Hmm?”
“No!” she shouted, although that was really pretty obvious from the way she struggled.
He was so much stronger than she was at the moment; he had to be careful not to really hurt her. Maybe the sudden distress would finally wake her up—it sometimes happened that way. But she kept screaming and crying and fighting him, and he didn’t want to irreparably damage what little relationship they had. He rolled off her, but kept hold of one arm when she tried to scramble away.
“I don’t intend to hurt you,” he tried to explain, though it came out rather menacingly, “and if you would just”—she bit his finger that he had brought too near her mouth—“calm down I promise you would enjoy—“
“Take your hands off me, let me go!” she shrieked, kicking him and probably doing more damage to herself.
“It can be very pleasurable for a woman—Ow! Fine!” He turned her loose with some force and she pressed back against the opposite wall, eyes darting between him and the open doorway. “But I’ll find you tonight!” he added to her retreating figure. Then he went to find Andreucio, to make sure his bride didn’t try to escape before nightfall.
“Pampinea.” She lay curled up in the corner of the bed, her back firmly to him. He slide under the blankets anyway and she scooted even closer to the far edge of the mattress. He had done a lot of thinking during the afternoon and was determined to be more conciliatory. “Pampinea. I’m sorry I lost my temper today. I hope I didn’t hurt you—“
He slid a hand onto her shoulder and she shrugged it off. “But I’m sure you can understand why a husband doesn’t like to imagine his wife pining over someone else.” He tried to emphasize their marital relationship as he crawled closer to her. “Especially a husband who feels as warmly about his wife as I do,” he murmured in her ear.
He tried sliding his hand across her hip and she jerked away, nearly tumbling out of the bed. Fortunately he was there to catch her. “I’m fine,” she hissed. “Please let me go.”
“You’re my wife, Pampinea,” he reminded her yet again, his tone losing its conciliatory sound. “There are certain duties I expect of you!” Weren’t all these women brought up to do their duty, to lie back and think of Florence?
“Oh, but what of a wife’s duty to her husband’s soul?” the girl shot back.
“Your penance, milord.” Gerbino gritted his teeth. Clearly someone else had spent the afternoon in thought as well. “I would not wish to be the cause of your dishonor before God.”
Not that she believed a word of what she was saying. But it was one of those brick walls you couldn’t argue around. “You will get used to sharing my bed, wife,” he promised instead. “And you will warm it, as you agreed.” But not tonight, apparently.
He didn’t want to threaten di Lamberti. She wasn’t keeping her promise, it was true, but to be honest he didn’t want to see her nobly give herself to him in order to save the man she truly loved. Man—hah! A fresh-faced boy, really, feckless, irresponsible, selfish. He was even now drowning his sorrows at the convent of the Sacred Sisters of the Bleeding Heart—drowning them in the arms of the beautiful, isolated, lovelorn young sisters with whom the convent was notoriously populated. That was what Gerbino’s sources told him anyway, and though he would love to rub his lovesick wife’s nose in that information, he wasn’t fool enough to think that would do him any good, either. It was all very frustrating—he was used to being a man of action, who got what he wanted and didn’t worry about the diplomacy of it.
Well, at least di Lamberti was too thoughtless to keep up the pretense that he was pining for Pampinea as she pined for him. She hadn’t received a single note or message from him since they’d parted.
“Have you harmed him?” she demanded of Gerbino one day.
“Excuse me?” he replied with irritation. He was always irritated with her now, the way she spoke, the way she walked, the way she knotted ribbons in her hair in such an unnatural way.
“Lorenzo,” she dared speak. “Have you harmed him?”
“No,” he told her coldly, going back to his book. He’d read half the library here already. “I have kept my promise, madam.” She harrumphed in that little way he hated and started to leave. “If you receive a message from him—I will kill him,” he added after her. She paused at the doorway but continued on without looking back. Now she didn’t know which to hope for, he supposed.
There was a large, deep well in the center courtyard of the villa, its shaft open to the sky. No one had asked if they could cover it and Gerbino thought little of it himself, except to note that it was a favorite place for Pampinea to sit and stare. Sometimes he sat and stared at her, sitting and staring, trying to see something of the woman he loved in this defiant but colorless girl, who roamed the villa like a ghost by day and lay limp in his arms at night, limp or stiff as a corpse. There was none of Susannah’s spark in her—was it possible for it to be extinguished, or buried so deep that it might never appear? And how could she be in love with someone else? How was that possible? These thoughts troubled him, and they were a waste of time as well.
Though what better thing he had to do with his time, he didn’t know.
One minute Pampinea was walking around the ledge of the well as she often did, dropping stones to the bottom. The next moment, when he looked up again, she was gone. He didn’t think, he just left his chair with inhuman speed and vaulted down to the courtyard, grabbing her wrist as it started to disappear below the rim of the well. Her eyes were huge with terror when he met them and he hauled her out, cradling her against his chest as he sat on the floor of the courtyard. “Pampinea! Are you alright?” It seemed stupid to ask, but people always did.
“Yes,” she replied dully, her teeth chattering suddenly.
Gerbino scooped her up and carried her to her room. At least she wasn’t squirming away from him. But he couldn’t help but recall, as his heart calmed down and allowed him to think again, that she hadn’t screamed when she’d fallen.
Doctors were few and far between here, many having been lost to the plague and other consequences of poor hygiene. She didn’t need that kind of doctor anyway. So Gerbino made sure she was put to bed with some hot tea and the smothering attentions of the maternal cook, and he had a cover put over the well. Slightly ridiculous, really, but if she wanted to kill herself she was going to have to work harder at it.
Not that he was issuing her a challenge. Far from it.
“Pampinea?” Her eyes weren’t completely closed and he sat down on the edge of the bed. “How do you feel?”
“Fine, milord,” she answered tonelessly. “Thank you, milord.” He didn’t know if she referred to his inquiry or his saving her life. Maybe she wasn’t glad for the latter.
Even with the enmity he often felt for her his fingers ached to touch her and, after some hesitation, he reached out to stroke the side of her face. “Is there somewhere else you would like to go?” he asked gently. The question surprised her, mildly. “I wouldn’t recommend any of the cities right now, but if there’s some other place you would like to travel to—the ocean, perhaps, or the mountains—“
“I often stayed here as a child,” she replied negatively. “I’m happy here.”
“You’re not happy, Pampinea,” he countered. He took a breath. “But please, help me to make you happy. I am… yours to command.” And what would he do if she asked for—But she didn’t ask for anything at all, just blinked as fresh tears coursed down her face. “Have you friends I could send for? Would it please you to see them?” That was her opening, if she wanted to take it—to ask for di Lamberti.
“Elissa and Filomena,” Pampinea finally said, her voice thick. “Perhaps if they…”
He tried not to be too obvious in his relief. “I’ll send for them right away,” he promised. “They’ll bring—the latest fashions with them, and you can go on… picnics.” It was all he could think of that might appeal to her. She wasn’t exactly leaping out of bed with joy, though. He pulled his hand back and straightened up, away from her. “I’ll not trouble you anymore at night,” he decided, quietly. “You needn’t worry about it. But I would prefer that Lucia sleep in here with you, to look after you.” And he really meant it that way, not as a veiled way to guard against unwanted nighttime visitors.
Pampinea nodded, then rolled over into her pillow, and Gerbino left. He noticed she didn’t exactly leap out of bed with joy at the news of him sleeping solo, either. Wake up, Susannah, please, he thought desperately.
Elissa and Filomena came, bringing with them the latest fashions and their eager fiancés as escorts. They were all so young—Gerbino could have been father to any of them, including his wife. That didn’t bother so much as bemuse him—he heard the girlish giggles, the sudden dash from place to place, the total silence followed by shrieks followed by laughter, and he rolled his eyes and tried to ignore it, hoping only that Pampinea’s voice was among those laughing. Lucia dutifully slept in her mistress’s room at night while Gerbino pretended that he slept in his own, and he turned a blind eye to where his randy young guests slept.
The young people went on picnics, as he had suggested, venturing to different spots in the forest or the sunbaked countryside. Gerbino didn’t join them; things were awkward enough without further pretense. Naturally, one day while they were out, they got themselves kidnapped.
The plague had meant tough times for the criminal classes, as well, especially those in specialized trades like slavery. They were venturing closer and closer to settled areas to find their bodies for the North African markets. But of course Gerbino didn’t let anything like sympathy prevent him from leading his men in attack—and the men had gotten restless out in the country with little to do, so they were quite ruthless when he finally loosed them.
They found and freed the men first, the fiancés and servants who’d been sent along as useless protection. The women had been kept in a tent, their hands bound but apparently unharmed. The two young men ran to their ladies and embraced them warmly, with much cooing and cuddling. Perhaps if they’d been better swordsmen than cuddlers they would have avoided this mess.
Pampinea stood alone in the corner of the tent and Gerbino approached her carefully. He allowed himself to put his hands on her arms, though he felt like clutching her to him as the others did. “Are you alright?” he asked. She nodded and he tipped her face up to examine the bruise across one cheek. He would remember the injury when he was meting out punishment to the leader of this operation. But given their goals, he had to be sure of something else.
Gerbino leaned down to whisper in the girl’s ear. “Did he touch you?” Her face flushed; she knew what he meant.
“No, milord,” she assured him. Gerbino nodded and used his sword to cut her bonds. “Thank you, milord,” she added, unexpectedly.
The ladies were loaded on a cart, surrounded by armed men, for the trip back to the villa. “Andreucio!” Gerbino was saying. “Have you checked all the tents? Make sure none of these criminals are hiding anywhere—“
“Milord?” He stopped short when his wife addressed him—it was so rare an event. Pampinea twisted her hands together nervously. “May I ride with you, milord?”
Gerbino hadn’t been planning to return to the villa just yet. But since his wife so rarely asked anything of him, especially his company—“Of course,” he told her. “Andreucio! Keep an eye on things until I return. Don’t let them get out of hand,” he added more quietly. His men would enjoy punishing the bandits, but Gerbino didn’t want anyone to die—until he got back, that is.
Pampinea was mounted on the horse in front of him, a cloak wrapped around her despite the warm day. Her presence was all that kept Gerbino’s sanity; the cart rumbled so slowly over the optimistically-named road that one could have kept up with it on foot. Instead Gerbino’s horse plodded dully along behind the cart, no doubt thinking bitter thoughts about how its ancestors had been bred for generations for speed and stamina just for this ignoble task. But Gerbino was able to feel the girl’s slight warmth in his arms, her pressure against his chest, to catch the scent of her floral bath oil. Once when a rabbit darted from the woods in front of them—no doubt it had mistaken them for a large tortoise—she even put her hand on his arm for a moment.
Such was what he had been reduced to celebrating, he supposed. But he found himself reluctant to leave once they reached the villa.
He did leave, though, because he was also looking forward to taking out his frustrations on the unfortunate bandits and their camp. He returned home late and ordered up a bath, rousing several of the servants—sadly this era was not the peak of relaxing hygienic practices, but he liked to do what he could. His muscles didn’t get sore, exactly, but it was still pleasant to stretch out in a tub of hot water for a while.
He heard the door open and close. “Pour another bucket in while you’re here, Patricio.”
“I’m sorry, milord, I don’t think I could lift it.” Gerbino’s eyes popped open as his wife walked into his line of sight. Well this was a surprise. Would it be a pleasant one?
“Milady,” he greeted formally, as though he weren’t sitting naked in a bathtub. It didn’t bother him, though clearly she wasn’t entirely comfortable with the arrangement.
He waited a long moment, wondering if he should prompt her. Not that he minded looking at her in only her nightdress, but eventually the water was going to get cold. “Milord, I—“ she finally began haltingly. He wasn’t going anywhere, so he tried to be patient. She forced herself to meet his gaze. “I know I have not been a very… dutiful wife, milord.” Her cheeks flushed. “I-I wish to be—more dutiful. You have been very—good to me, milord. I wish to obey you as a wife should.”
Hmm. Well, ‘dutiful’ and ‘obedient’ didn’t sound especially exciting, but—he wasn’t going to be picky, not when she’d finally come to him. He was confident that once she’d actually experienced this activity women of this era were taught to fear, she would cease being so distant—unlike many men, he valued his partner’s pleasure and knew how to bring it about.
“Well, if you wish to obey me, wife,” he said slowly, looking her up and down, “hop in.”