First chapter of THE SCARLET CONTESSA by Jeanne Kalogridis:
December 10, 1499
The end of the world will arrive, say the mendicant preachers, on the first of January, 1500; God can no longer bear the deeds of evil men and will strike them down. That most famous Cassandra, the monk Savonarola of Florence, says that God is especially outraged by the blatant sexual crimes of Pope Alexander, who brought his sixteen-year-old mistress and his illegitimate children to live with him in the Vatican.
On that terrible day, the prophets say, the earth will shake until it crumbles to dust, and us sinners will fall howling to our knees. For the wicked there will be no mercy. Those of us who have been faithless will be cast forever into the lake of fire. The world will perish in a cataclysm, and a new kingdom will take its place.
Christmas is a fortnight away, which means the coming wrath of God is barely three weeks away, according to the faithful. I wonder whether my lady Caterina and I will live long enough to see it.
For now, however, it is midnight, and beyond Ravaldino’s fortress walls, all is quiet. I lie upon the little cot in my lady’s roomy closet – used now for storing ammunition and gunpowder instead of Caterina’s headdresses and gowns, and thus stinking of war. I yearn for sleep, but it does not come easily these days.
Especially not tonight, with the noise emanating from the bed out in my lady’s chamber. My arm has gone numb, and to wake it, I turn over on the narrow cot; it is lumpy and uncomfortable, and I am unused to sleeping on it. This leaves me facing the velvet curtain that covers the closet door.
Unfortunately, it does not cover it well enough. The swath of velvet is slightly too narrow, and through the cracks between it and the stone, I glimpse Caterina sitting up in the middle of her large bed, illuminated by the lamp on the night-table. She is entirely naked, and the light infuses her white skin with a warm glow, as if she had been dipped in honey; her torso is long and lean, her waist, after many children, narrow. Her back is to me as she straddles her supine lover, and as she rides him vigorously, the handsome muscles of her shoulders, back and arms ripple, and her thick dark blond braid, terminating at the base of her spine, swings like a pendulum across her back ribs.
Her latest lover, Giovanni di Casale, lies passively beneath her, groaning with pleasure and exhaustion, his head thrown back against the pillow, his long, bony legs emerging from beneath his lady’s firm buttocks. He is forty—only four years older than the insatiable Caterina—but he seems twenty decades older. He is red-haired, balding, with flabby skin the unhealthy white of a fish’s belly; Caterina reaches out to brace herself against his chest for a moment, and his skin jiggles beneath her hands. He is my lady’s secretary, not a soldier.
After a full day of leading military drills and testing the artillery, the contessa Caterina Sforza, Lady of Forli, is still full of lust and energy. She releases her hold on Giovanni’s freckled chest and circles her hips atop his in a slow, grinding motion, as if to crush him. Inspired, Giovanni releases a gasp of mounting ecstasy.
The scene causes a faint, pleasurable stirring between my own legs, but anxiety steals my desire to seek release. Instead, I squeeze my eyes shut and turn my back to the curtain, wishing I had the energy to stick my fingers into my ears.
It is hard enough to sleep these days, even without such an interruption. A week ago, we left the comfort of Paradise, the name Caterina gave her magnificent apartments with their breathtaking view of the nearby Apennine Mountains. A week before that, she secretly sent all her valuables—fine gowns, jewelry, furniture, carpets, as well as all her children, save one—to the safe haven of Florence. Now we are in the most secure tower in the fortress of Ravaldino, on the edge of the town Forli, which Caterina rules. She is contessa, too, of Imola, a larger town half a day’s ride away, which is now under attack by the Pope’s army.
If Imola falls, odds are we shall fall, too.
There are few windows here in the main tower, no paintings or tapestries covering the drab walls, no carpets upon the rough stone floors, no furniture save for the bed, a single armoire, a night table, and a table for the wash basin, above which hangs the large, finely polished mirror Caterina insisted on bringing. The Lady of Forli’s cries of pleasure grow louder and more urgent, joining with those of Giovanni, finally fully inspired by her efforts.
Just as Giovanni lets go a howl of ecstatic release—and my lady laughs softly with delight at his abandon—a hammering comes at the thick wood and iron door. There is such urgency in the knock that I roll from my cot at once, slip the shawl folded near my pillow over my shoulders, and push the curtain to the closet aside. Politely, I avert my gaze as the lovers hastily uncouple, pull on their clothing, and move quickly to the door.
“Who calls?” I shout.
“Ridolfo Naldi, come from the fortress of Imola this night. I bear a message from my brother Dionigi.”
A thrill—hope and fear combined—passes through me. I peer through the peephole to confirm the identity of the messenger, and to ensure that he is alone. Satisfied, I nod over my shoulder at Caterina, who then curtly tells her lover, with the brisk authority of a military commander:
“Ser Giovanni. Fetch my son at once.”
She nods at me to open the door.
I do. It swings outward; Giovanni exits, and Ridolfo enters. The two men pass each other closely, emphasizing the difference in height and build. Giovanni is short and rather slender, though soft and unmuscled; Ridolfo is a full head taller and almost thrice as wide. His head is entirely bald, with folds of skin at the base of his burly skull; his neck is as broad as Caterina’s thigh. Yet the huge hands that clutch his cap are trembling, and his round, thick features are slack with shock and fright. As Caterina gestures, rather impatiently, at him, he steps heavily inside; a pungent waft of aged sweat emanates from him as he passes. His blue uniform, clearly worn for days on end, is stained from the oil used to lubricate the cannons. As I close the door behind him, he does not merely genuflect, but sinks to his knees in front of the contessa.
I have met Ridolfo many times. Like his brother, Dionigi—castellan of the fortress at Imola—he is no coward, yet there is such panic in his eyes I expect him to start weeping at any instant. My lady and I know, of course, what he is about to say, but I will not allow myself to believe it until I hear the words.
“Your Illustrious Excellency,” he says to Caterina. His voice, too high-pitched for so great a body, wavers. “I bring news from my brother.”
“So you’ve said,” Caterina replies softly, and waits.
Ridolfo draws a shuddering breath and releases said news in a torrent. “The citizens, perhaps you know, all surrendered to the Duke of Valentino’s army without a struggle. My brother Dionigi was able to hold the fortress for you… but Valentino’s artillery breached the wall at last. Dionigi fought courageously and well, but without the support of the city, he could not hold them off forever.” He bowed his head and released a small sob. “Dionigi showed such bravery. He is wounded, Your Illustriousness, in the head. Even after it was clear he would be defeated, and despite his pain, Dionigi would not surrender, would not leave his post, would not listen to the duke’s threats and promises. He was so persistent in his loyalty to you, in his willingness to die for you, that Valentino was moved. He granted my brother a three-day truce, so that Dionigi might send me to you, to ask whether you wish to send reinforcements to try to hold the fortress.”
As he speaks, a burning chill has forced its way upwards from the base of my spine and spread outwards, leaving me sickened. The Lady of Forli turns her face away from the kneeling giant; her lips twist with fury. “Bastards,” she mutters. “Dionigi would have prevailed if they hadn’t spread their legs like whores for Valentino!” She is speaking of her subjects in Imola, who so feared the duke’s army that they surrendered to him before he ever entered the city. “They have paid for it, Your Illustriousness,” Ridolfo says. “Valentino’s army has pillaged the city and raped every woman, even those in the convent. The duke himself took the prettiest women for himself; it’s said he sleeps with a new one every night.”
At this, Caterina’s anger hardens. She composes herself, squares her shoulders, smoothes her brow and assumes an air of dignity and confidence. Were it not for her disheveled hair and rumpled chemise, one might think she was holding court. But a long moment passes before she can gather herself to speak.
“Valentino knows that I can spare no troops,” she says at last. “The fortress is lost, through no fault of Ser Dionigi’s. He has behaved admirably. I must know, however, what the duke plans for him.”
“He will allow Dionigi and his men to leave the fortress with a safe escort to Forli,” Ridolfo answers swiftly. “The duke is sincere, Your Illustriousness, else he would not have let me come. He says…” His voice begins to tremble again. “He says to tell you that he is coming next for you.”
Caterina lifts a golden brow at the duke’s threat, but otherwise refuses to respond to it. “Go back to Imola,” she tells Ridolfo, “and relay our deep gratitude to Ser Dionigi. Tell him he has discharged his duty with honor, and that I am releasing him and his men from my service.”
“Thank you, Your Illustriousness!” Ridolfo’s broad face crumples with relief; he puts his massive hands to his eyes and weeps briefly, then looks up, cheeks and eyes shining. “May I… That is, my brother wished to know, with all respect… Does this mean you will now release his wife and children, that they might join him?”
Caterina lets go a short laugh; apparently she forgot that she had secured Dionigi’s excessive loyalty by imprisoning his family. “Of course, of course!”
Just as Ridolfo thanks her profusely, the Lady of Forli’s lover and secretary, Giovanni, reappears with her eldest son, twenty-year-old Ottaviano. Caterina takes her secretary aside, all business, and whispers detailed instructions to him. When she is finished, Giovanni nods and helps the overwhelmed Ridolfo to his feet. The two disappear out the door, and Caterina turns her attention to her son, while I try not to be noticed. Caterina is not shy about sending me away when she desires privacy; the fact that she has not dismissed me means that she wishes me to remain. And so I watch, at a respectful distance, the poignant exchange between mother and son.
Ottaviano is not an easy youth to love. He is as slothful and unmotivated as his mother is tireless and ambitious, as full of complaints as she is courage. Nor did he inherit Caterina’s good looks, wit, or athletic talent. Though she has drilled him in the martial arts daily for months, his cheeks and body have not lost their childish plumpness; the swell of his belly is easily visible beneath his long wool nightshirt. His nose and lips are broad and thick, his face round, his general demeanor one of listlessness. He wears his dull brown hair in the manner of a page, chopped short so that it falls three fingers below his chin, with straight bangs ending just above his eyebrows. Even now, after the urgent summons to his mother’s quarters in the middle of the night, he is still rubbing his eyes and scowling fretfully at being awakened. Though he will soon be the ruler of Imola and Forli when he reaches his majority, he has little interest in the details of government and prefers to leave such matters in his mother’s hands.
Caterina steps up to him and puts her arms upon his shoulders. He is less than half a head taller than she is, but much, much broader.
“My son,” she says briskly, without drama. “The fortress at Imola has fallen. Ser Giovanni is fetching a scout, who will guide you to Florence. We cannot wait another minute. Your trunk and horse will be waiting at the western gate. Get ready at once and go to them.”
“Imola has fallen?” Ottaviano’s eyes widen; he seems honestly surprised, as if he had expected some other news to have caused Caterina to drag him from his bed at such an hour. “Mother, are you sure?” He glances to me as if seeking another opinion; I drop my gaze.
“Yes,” my lady says firmly. “We’ve discussed this several times. Now we must act.” She leans forward on tiptoe and kisses the center of his forehead. “Go. I will see you again soon – here, in this very fortress, when Valentino has been routed.”
He hesitates. “But… Are you sure you will be safe?”
Caterina laughs at the question and gives him a little shove. “Foolish boy! Hurry! Others will be waiting for you.”
Ottaviano gives her a last woeful look; apparently, this is the first time he has considered that he ought not leave his mother to fight the French and papal armies alone. But Caterina pushes him again, this time with a hint of irritation. He gives her a slow, solemn kiss on the lips, then turns and lumbers out of the chamber.
“I will summon you home as soon as it is safe,” Caterina calls after him, her tone gay.
Once the door has closed behind him, her false cheer evaporates; she goes to the bed and sits down abruptly, heavily, on the edge. She presses her palms to her eyes, and as her lips suddenly contort, I go to stand beside her, and rest a hand gently upon her shoulder.
“I’m all right,” she says from behind her hands, but I hear the tears in her voice. We remain as we are for a long moment, and then she lowers one hand and pats the mattress beside her. “Giovanni is not coming back tonight. Sleep here, beside me.”
I do as I am told, and lie down beside her. For a long time, she does not extinguish the bedside lamp, but stares up at the ceiling, thinking. I close my eyes and do my best to feign sleep. After an hour, perhaps two, Caterina puts out the light. Some time later, I can tell from her breath that she will not fall asleep. Nor will I. We lie awake together until dawn, each of us lost in dread of what is to come.
News of Imola’s fall spreads quickly throughout the town of Forli; Valentino’s massive army is only two days’ march away. By the following evening, two town elders come to Ravaldino’s fortress, where the Contessa of Forli has taken refuge.
Unfortunately, I am not available to serve as my lady’s ever-present talisman at the meeting. Caterina indulged in a hot bath half an hour before, and I am making use of the still-warm water when the elders arrive and request an audience with my lady. She gives me leave to remain behind, even though I suspect the citizens’ appearance does not bode well. I therefore bathe as quickly as possible, and struggle to pull my chemise and gown over still-damp skin.
The encounter between Caterina and the elders lasts only minutes. By the time I hurry out of Caterina’s new chamber and up the vertiginous steps to Paradise—the lavish apartment she had built for herself in more peaceful times and where she receives all her guests—the elders, Ser Ludovico and Ser Niccolo, are coming down the stairs and pass me. With them is one of the contessa’s personal bodyguards, guiding them out of the maze that is Ravaldino Fortress.
They nod politely and cordially enough to me, though they seem preoccupied – who would not be, with Valentino’s army on the way? I nod in response and make way for them to pass, deeply relieved that they seem calm. Obviously, there had been no argument with the contessa; perhaps they had come to express support for her.
Buoyed, I lift my skirts and hurry upstairs to find Caterina in the nearly bare reception chamber. She has left her chair, behind which a second impassive bodyguard stands, and is on her toes at the window, craning her neck to stare down at the stone courtyard Ser Niccolo and Ser Ludovico will cross on their way out of the fortress.
When I enter and pause to curtsy, she jerks her head over her shoulder to look back at me, and I know in an instant that all is lost.
“Bastard!” she swears. “Son of a filthy whore…!” Her lips are trembling, her teeth gritted, her blue eyes wide with rage. I do not move, but remain genuflected as she turns her face back to the window and continues her tirade.
“Luffo Numai!” she shouts. Numai is the richest man in Forli; he has served on the city council for some years and considers himself the spokesman for the townspeople. “That’s who it was—that’s the traitor! He convinced them all that they had no chance with me, that Valentino’s army would slaughter them, that they were safer surrendering to him.” She lets go a wild laugh. “They’ll learn soon enough what becomes of those who trust the Duke of Valentino!”
I lift my head. “The Forlivese?” I whisper.
“They will not fight in my defense,” she says, still facing the window. The bitter words steam the glass, and she wipes them away angrily as she stares down at the courtyard below. “They are sending a messenger to Valentino to tell him so. And according to my apologetic guests, it was Luffo Numai who worked tirelessly to convince the citizens that surrender was their only hope for survival. Many of the people supported me, wanted to raise their swords for me, but Numai bullied them until they gave in.” She lurches toward the window as her eye catches something below. “Hah! There they go!”
She turns toward me, skirts whirling, words tumbling out of her so rapidly I can scarcely follow them. “I was polite to Niccolo and Ludovico, of course. I was gracious; I told them that, given the fall of Imola, I could not expect the citizens of Forli to defend me. But they would have, had it not been for Numai. How much money, do you think, Valentino promised him? And governorship, of course, since Valentino will not be able to look after the cities himself…”
She moves swiftly to the chair and throws on her cloak, then strides out of the chamber, through the door and down the same steps Niccolo and Ludovico had recently trodden; since she continues to address me, I follow, breathless from the effort to keep pace with her.
“Numai thinks he will steal my lands from me,” she says darkly, “and from my sons, but he will pay. The bastard will pay! I will see to it personally…”
I follow her down to the second level, where tunnels have been cut deep into the stone wall to accommodate artillery. Caterina leads me to the end of one of them, and calls to a nearby soldier.
“Bring the gunners!” she shouts, and as the soldier runs off to obey, Caterina moves to the side of one of the long bronze cannons, which is tilted upward forty-five degrees.My lady does not need to search for the long-handled ladle, or the great wooden box that houses the gunpowder; she knows where both are kept, and fills the ladle full of the sulphurous powder with practiced ease, then pushes it down the cannon’s long barrel. At her bidding, I run and fetch a huge handful of hay to serve as wadding from a pile kept near the gunpowder box, and the long wooden rammer.
As I drop the hay into the muzzle and push it down with the rammer, Caterina goes to fetch the ball from a large pyramid-shaped stack. She staggers beneath the weight of the dressed stone sphere; she can carry it only crouched over, in both hands, with the ball at the level of her mid-thigh. But carry it she does, and as she steps toward the muzzle, I join her, and together we manage to lift the ball high enough to push it into the barrel.
By this time, six gunners have finally assembled, and take over the rest of the duties.
“Aim it at Numai’s palace,” Caterina orders, knowing full well that the likelihood of accurately striking such a distant target at dusk is poor. Even so, she watches avidly as one of the artillerymen uses a weighted plummet line to find the true perpendicular, then measures the angle with a quadrant and adjusts the muzzle accordingly. And when at last the metal cover is lifted at the cannon’s base, and the botefeux holding the lighted match is applied to the touchhole, she claps her hands with dark glee.
“For you, Luffo Numai!” she cries, a split second before the officer in charge waves us back, then orders:“Fire!”
I flinch and put my hands over my ears.
At once, I find myself living the fortune-telling card known as the Tower. The cannon roars, paining my ears, and the heavy stone of the fortress walls, of the solid floor beneath my feet, trembles. In my mind, I feel myself falling, falling amid shattered stone, to the ground, to certain doom, to the end of everything I know.
At Caterina’s command, the cannon fires again, and again.
The Lady of Forli and I have been through the experience of the Tower twice now, and survived. But this third time will surely be our last.
In the midst of the deafening song of the artillery, I see our end and our beginning. And my mind turns to the distant past…