I was avoiding my parents, very easy to do in so large and loud a crush of celebrating people, with musicians playing. And I was masked, my feathered face a happy disguise. I caught glimpses of them—my mother, Mona Simonetta, short and plump as a partridge, and Papa, Capello Capelletti, a rangy beanstalk. To confer as they were now doing—looking this way and that, no doubt wondering at my whereabouts—Papa needed bending at the waist and Mama craning her neck to give him an ear.
I sidestepped behind a marble pillar and leaned back, sighing. This night of Lucrezia and Piero's betrothal, one that I wished to celebrate joyfully, was sure to be spent either cat-and-mousing with my parents, or trapped in a corner with Jacopo Strozzi, me pretending his conversation scintillating, his breath sweet, and his manner delightful. And several times this night I had noticed Allessandra Strozzi, dark complexioned and severe in countenance, peering with great intensity into the crowd, probably looking for me.
Rein yourself in, I ordered myself. Jacopo had never been unkind, and Mama said he often asked after my likes and dislikes. He plied me with compliments, though I always felt they would have been the same for any and every other girl in Florence he might be courting. He brought me small gifts—a silver crucifix, jade rosary beads, and a Book of Hours—all, I supposed, to remind me of the pious woman I was expected to be. Well, I told myself, I had best come to grips with my future husband. I must find a way to make the thought of sharing Jacopo's home and bed and bearing his children somehow less revolting. Lucrezia was right. Nothing could be done to change it.
"Cosimo and Contessina de' Medici!" I heard announced as the music died. There was great shuffling of feet and rustling of fine fabric as everyone turned to the front of the ballroom. Guests pulled the masks from their faces in a respectful gesture and fell silent as the smiling Godfather of Florence, his wife on his arm, waved beneficently over the crowd. "Good friends!" he cried, and everyone crowed back at him—"Don Cosimo!" He laughed, delighted at the warmth and fellowship flowing forward and back. "What a day of glad tidings this is," he continued. Now there was hardly a sound that could be heard. "Our son Piero has not only made a match in the beautiful Lucrezia Tornabuoni. He has met his match!"
Everyone roared their approval, and I thought how overbrimming with pride my friend must be, honored by so honorable a man.
Lucrezia and Piero appeared then, he looking darkly handsome and quite elegant in a black velvet tunic piped in silver and, eschewing a dramatic turban, wearing instead a flat cap with a long, upward-curving white feather. Lucrezia, clutching his hand, eyes fastened on her betrothed, glowed with a look that proclaimed, "I am the luckiest girl in the world!"
"May the joining of our two houses, and the heirs that spring fat and healthy from her womb, prove a blessing to Florence," Cosimo intoned, "and all the citizens of the Republic!"
The cheering at that was loud and raucous. I watched as Cosimo gently herded the now shy couple onto the floor that had cleared for them. Musicians struck the first chords of the pima, and Lucrezia and Piero took their poses. At the precise moment they swooped into motion, their gazes locked, and all could see that Cosimo's words were not the empty praise and platitudes of any proud father. These two on the dance floor were something marvelous. Important. Radiating a glorious destiny. And we were the fortunate witnesses.
"Well, there you are," I heard my mother say inches behind my ear, and cringed. I had been caught. "Let me see the mask Lucrezia gifted you."
I turned and, pulling the feathered creation that hung on a ribbon from my waist, dutifully held it up to my face.
"Oh, it is very fine. It must have been expensive."
Through the eyeholes I saw my mother appraising me from foot to head. She fluffed out a slashed sleeve and smoothed my skirt. Then her eyes fell disapprovingly on my bodice. "Much too low," she muttered.
"It is the fashion," I said. "You saw the dress before I left the house."
Undeterred, she took a fine silk handkerchief from her sleeve and began tucking it between my breasts.
"Mother!" I pulled back farther behind the pillar. "Do you wish me to die of embarrassment in the middle of the Medici ballroom?" I wanted to resist her ministrations but knew it would create more of a scene.
"I will not have you meeting your husband-to-be looking like a prostitute."
"Don't be horrible!"
"There, that's better."
I looked down. The pretty curve of my bosom was now concealed under poufs of silk. It looked quite ridiculous.
"Come with me," my mother said.
"May I not even watch my friend dance the first dance with her betrothed?" I was ashamed of the petulance in my voice, but it caused my mother to relent.
"You see where your father is?" She nodded across the room to where he now stood with his future business partner. His face was red and angry.
"Can Papa not enjoy the evening?"
"Not with all the trouble at the factory. The Monticecco… ," she began, but her voice trailed off. "But that is none of our affair. You just meet us over there in a quarter of an hour."
She gave the silk handkerchief another upward tug.
"Will you leave it?" I moaned.
She tottered away on her high platform shoes with an alarming lack of grace. A stiff breeze would have knocked her over.
I made a slow circle around the dance floor behind the crowd. I could see that all the girls and women had their eyes fixed on the happy couple.
Maria Cantorre appeared the saddest. At fourteen she was about to be married to a wealthy Roman wool merchant fifty years her senior. His last wife and every one of his children had died in the plague of 1438, and poor Maria had been chosen among all the marriageable females in Florence for the fertility of her family's women to provide a new parade of heirs for the old man.
Chaterina Valenti, a pretty but dull-witted girl of my age, had just married below her rank, as her father's intemperate business dealings had left her with a pitiful dowry. She was so openly seething with jealousy over Lucrezia's good fortune I was tempted to tap her on the shoulder and advise her to perhaps hide her envy for fear of shaming herself, her husband, and her family.
Constanza Marello, a wisp of a woman with a sharp beaky nose, was the infamous Spinster of Florence. Despite an immense dowry, the Fates had continually mocked her, killing off one after another of Constanza's prospective bridegrooms, so that now, at almost thirty, she was too old to begin childbearing. No one would wish to marry such a woman. I had recently heard gossip that she was headed for a nunnery, her dowry used to endow the holy house of San Lorenzo. If Constanza's family could not raise its worth through her marriage to a wealthy man, it could nevertheless reap spiritual riches and great respect by its generous patronage of the church.
With the final chords of the first dance played out, the virgins of Florence were called to the floor. As we formed a circle, bracelets of tiny cymbals were thrust into our hands. How many times I had joined this roundele I could not count, but as I took the hands of the girls to the left and right of me, I tried to forget it was bound to be my last. It was a joyous dance, very sprightly, with steps and snakelike weaves and swift turns that made the most of a young lady's grace and lightness. Eyes sparkled with promise. Arms raised above our heads, wrists twisted with delicate flicks that jangled our cymbal bracelets in fetching rhythm.
The Virgins' Dance made everyone smile, and as we circled and twirled, I found myself laughing, felt my soul soaring and free from care, as though music—not blood—was coursing through my veins. All around us revelers clapped to the beat that quickened, our feet skipping faster, faster, faster, the cymbals, the drums, CRESCENDO!
We fell together, arms about one another, gasping happily. But there was no respite. Another dance had already begun. The gentlemen joined in now, and the rest of the ladies, too. We were circle-within-circle—the men without, women within. In this way, in the space of a quadernaria, we would come face-to-face with every person of the other sex at the ball, politely touching hands, smiling, nodding, bowing, and turning.
We had danced thus for only a moment before I stood opposite my father. His sour mood had not lightened even a fraction, and I was further assailed by a disapproving look that said, "Why did you not come to me when I called?" I replied with the downcast eyes of a chastised daughter and was much relieved when the stanza moved him on, putting in his place the city's current gonfaloniere, a fat and jolly guildsman who, with a de-lighted belly laugh, gave me an extra twirl that nearly undid the perfect symmetry of the double-circle dance.
Coming back to my place in the circle, I found myself before another friendly face, though this one my age. My father's nephew Marco was a happy, boisterous young man known and loved for his clownishness.
"What's that stuck between your bosoms, good cousin?" he demanded, improvising an extra hop and a spin. As he bowed, he reached out and gave my mother's silk kerchief a tug.
"Marco," I whispered threateningly.
"It looks very silly," he said in a loud voice. "Poufs on your poufs!"
Before I could bean the boy, he had danced away, and to my dismay I now stood before Signor Strozzi. My husband-to-be, clutching my hand with the long, tapering fingers of his own cold, clammy one, was silent and stultifyingly formal. His steps were stiff, as though a pole were lodged in his ano. I nearly laughed aloud at that thought. But what he did next stifled the sound in my throat.
He smiled. Smugly. Possessively. With long yellowing teeth.
I thought I might faint.
Never had I been gladder for a cast-off to a new partner than I was when the stanza changed, and no more delightful a partner could I have wished for. It was our host. Cosimo de' Medici's eyes sparkled so impishly and his feet stepped so lightly that he seemed a much younger man. I suddenly understood why Lucrezia loved him so.
"Ah, Juliet," he said, beaming, "what a joyful occasion. Tell me, is your friend happy?"
I executed the slight swivel of a campegiarre and gazed back at him over my shoulder.
"Only walking on air. How could she feel otherwise?"
With the quadernaria drawing to a close, we made our final bows, but as before, the musicians had barely finished with one tune before striking up another. These were the chords we all recognized as a bassadanza, a slow and stately procession of couples. Everyone took a moment to place their masks on their faces.
Don Cosimo had moved forward to partner with the lady next to me. Suddenly I felt my hand grasped by strong, warm fingers and turned to greet my partner. All I could see of him behind his sleek wolf's mask were his eyes, deep brown and soulful, a firm angled chin, and lush lips.
Facing one another, broken into two lines—men and women—we began the graceful rising and falling motion of the undagiarre, but I found myself quite unnerved.
My partner's eyes would not leave mine.
There I found myself, imprisoned by a stranger's gaze and oddly longing for the moment he would grasp my hand again. His lips parted. Revealed was an even line of pearl white teeth. We came together, palms touching palms, and then he spoke.
" 'Such sweet decorum and such gentle graces attend my lady as she dances.' "
"What did you say?"
We separated again. My mind reeled. The voice itself was rich and mellifluous, a kind of music unto itself. But it was the words that had rocked me. Now I took his arm, and facing front, we promenaded forward, stepped and pivoted, stepped and pivoted.
I could not contain myself, but I kept my voice low as I said, "The line reads, 'Such sweet decorum and such gentle graces attend my lady's greeting as she walks.' "
"Yes, but you are dancing."
"You dare amend Dante?"
"When it suits me," he said, his tone simple and sincere. But I was flummoxed.
"You are outrageous, my lord!" I cried, losing my step and my footing. Then to my horror I stumbled. I saw myself careening into the back of Cosimo's partner, but in the moment before I collapsed the entire procession, those strong hands cinched my waist and gracefully propelled me out of harm's and humiliation's way.
The dance went on without us, and in moments I'd been guided from the ballroom floor down the stairs to the vestibule and into the palazzo's scented garden.
It was torch and moonlit, deserted but for my wolfman and me.
I was strangely light-headed and clearheaded all at once.
"Will you unmask?" he said in a low, husky tone. The way my body felt, he might have uttered, "Will you undress?" I wondered if he knew I ached to see the face that matched that voice.
"Will you?" I whispered.
"For my dancing lady?" he teased. "Anything she pleases."
"Then on the count of three," I said, sounding, I thought, like a mathematics tutor, and, closing my eyes, nodded thrice.
The cool night air tingled my damp cheeks as the mask came off. A vein thumped in my neck. Slowly I raised my eyelids.
He was right before me, having moved closer, this audacious young man, he who took liberties with Dante Alighieri.
Oh, he was beautiful! The hair that flowed to his shoulders was chestnut and thick with waves. The dark windows of his wide-set eyes dared me to enter at my own risk. His cheekbones were broad but finely chiseled, and the nose was straight and perfectly shaped—more Circassian than Italian, I thought.
Then I smiled, thinking, I am no stranger to that mouth. Instantly I quashed the thought.
"Why do you smile that way?" he asked.
I stood speechless, as I did not wish to lie to him. Yet the truth was deeply mortifying. He was a stranger! One whose impudence had made me stumble in the promenade.
"What? Suddenly mute?" he prodded. "Inside, you chastised me. Now you refuse to speak."
"I do not refuse," I finally said. "I simply wish to choose my words more carefully."
"You needn't be careful with me," he said with unexpected gentleness. "I lived with sisters. I'm used to teasing them." Then he went silent, his head tilting slightly, examining my face. He was quiet for a long while.
"Now you're the mute," I accused.
He laughed, and the sound of it fluttered my heart. So sweet was it, I silently determined, that I must make this young man laugh again and again. Those eyes refused to release me from their locked grip. I wished desperately that my mother's handkerchief was not stuffed in my bodice.
The full lips moved and he said softly, " 'I found her so full of natural dignity and admirable bearing she did not seem the daughter of an ordinary man, but rather a god.'"
I was awed at his grasp of our favorite poet, indeed, my favorite of his books—Vita Nuova—and I wished with all desperation to reply in kind, though without revealing my soul too deeply.
"Good sir," I finally said, " 'you speak without the trusted counsel of reason.' "
He was delighted at my choice of quotes.
"Now it is you who is guilty of changing Dante's words," he said, "and, moreover, changing his meaning."
"Not so!" I cried. "I simply chose a phrase, a part of a phrase. One that follows your own in chapter two."
"And what is the rest of that phrase?" he probed, taking half a step closer. We were in dangerous proximity now.
I could hardly breathe. I closed my eyes to recall the words as they stood on the page. " 'And though her image,'; " I recited, ";'which remained constantly with me, was Love's assurance of holding me, it was of such pure quality that never did it permit to be ruled by Love without the trusted counsel of reason.'" I opened my eyes, mortified that I had been the first to speak of that most poignant of emotions.
"You see, you did change the meaning," he insisted. "Dante was saying that in his love for Beatrice he was always blessed by reason." His face fixed itself in a noncommittal expression. "Though when it comes to the love I feel, I might not be so blessed."
I thought I might swoon and had to take a step backward. But with a small smile, the gentleman took one forward.
It was a bold challenge and though he had not touched me, a strong but pleasant shock reverberated through my body. I strove to remain calm.
"Who are you?" I said. "Why do I not know you?"
"I have been in Padua. At university. Before that, I lived with my uncles in Verona for several years." Pain flickered across his features then. "There were many deaths in my family—all my elder brothers, and my sisters…" He shook his head. "The family business here in Florence will one day be mine."
"I lost all my brothers, too," I said.
Both of us looked down at our feet, yet too unfamiliar to share that black misery.
"And your name?" I did ask.
He grinned, then closed his eyes, as though trying to remember a particular line. ";'Names follow from the things they name, as the saying goes.…'" He hesitated and I jumped in, so we spoke together in unison, from chapter thirteen:
";'Names are the consequences of things.' "
We both smiled, utterly pleased with ourselves.
"So I am the consequence of my father's and mother's 'thing'?" I asked.
His laugh was bawdy this time. "I imagine your father would not approve of your speaking of his 'thing'."
"Come, tell me your name," I begged.
"Romeo," he said. "And yours?"
"Ju-li-et. It lies gently on the tongue."
"And your family's name?"
He spun suddenly on his heel and with a flourish bowed low before me.
What matter is my name if my mind has shattered in a thousand pieces and my heart,
where the soul resides, has grown to the size of the sun?
My brow furrowed. "That is not Dante. Or if it is, I cannot place it."
He pressed his lips tightly together, then spoke. "It is my own verse."
"You're a poet!"
"That I would never claim."
"Why? They were pretty words, carefully composed. I had to think a moment. They could have been Dante's."
"You are far too kind, Lady Juliet." His eyes narrowed. "Indeed, I think you mock me."
"No, no! Romeo, I am an honest woman. There is much I cannot claim for myself. But straight talking is one that I proudly do. And when it comes to poetry, sir, I fancy myself of strong and fair opinion. And I tell you your verse was pleasant to the ear."
He sighed happily.
"Here, listen to mine," I said.
Am I mad to judge a man by the shape of his hand,
square and strong, the way he holds my face so tender in his palm.
Warm, enchanted fingertips that magic make upon my soul,
All of that, all of that, in the shape of a hand.
Romeo fixed me with a blank gaze.
"You wrote that?"
"I did. What's wrong with it?"
"Then why do you stand there like a stag just struck by an arrow?"
"Women… ," he began, but could not finish.
"Women do not write poetry?" I finished for him. I bristled, insulted, and started turning away.
"No, please, Juliet!"
He grasped my hand in both of his, not unaware of his presumptuousness. I could not deny that despite my strong words, his touch had, alarmingly, turned me soft inside. Yielding.
"Forgive me. I have never known a woman poet. The verse was…brilliant. And the verse was yours."
"I thought it so. Dante, were he here in this garden, would agree."
I gently released myself from his grip, aware that pulling away was what I wished least to do. "You teased me before," I said, surprised to hear my voice grow low and husky. "You tease me again."
He shook his head. "Who has read your poems?"
"Only my friend Lucrezia."
"Others should read your work."
"Oh no. That would cause a world of unhappiness." I fell silent, suddenly miserable. "My future husband would never approve."
Romeo's features crumpled, and a certain light faded from his eyes. I understood his disappointment.
As much from my own anger at the Fates as his, I lashed out at him with as much sense as a hedgehog. "What, did you not expect a woman of my age to be betrothed? Do I look like a spinster to you? Am I so hideous?"
He was amused at my intemperance, refusing—like a stubborn fish—to take my bait.
"Ah, I see. You test me," he said. "You wish me to versify on the subject of your beauty."
"That was not my intention," I insisted. He nevertheless said:
Her color is the paleness of the pearl
She is the highest nature can achieve
And by her mold all beauty tests itself.
I smiled at the well-chosen lines of our favorite poet. "Ah, she is mollified."
"Not entirely," I said, enjoying the game. "I require one of yours."
"On the spur of the moment?"
"Well, certainly you've written of other ladies' beauty."
He was very quiet and displayed a look of bafflement.
"Come, a winsome young bachelor like yourself…"
"I am not a bachelor. I'm a scholar, only recently come from—"
"Padua, I know. But you have written of love—your heart 'the size of the sun.' Is beauty so hard?"
A slow smile bowed his lips and his eyes swept over my face.
"No, my lady, not when the beauty is that of an angel."
I was growing keenly aware of the sensations this man's near presence was having on my body. I strove to remain serene.
He continued slowly, as the words flowed into his head.
Not when the name evokes a precious stone.
Who is Juliet? How does her smile manage to foretell the rising sun, her eyes the brightest stars in the southern sky?
Who is Juliet, a lady on whose sweetly scented breath ride surprising words that illumine the night and make a poet's heart sing with wonder at his good fortune to know her?
"I am more than satisfied," I said, deeply impressed with his agility and flattered by the sentiment.
"But I am not." He looked unhappy. "Who is your betrothed?"
"My 'nearly betrothed' is Jacopo Strozzi."
Romeo's face paled.
"Do you know him?"
"I know of him."
"What do you know of him?"
My young courtier was growing more uneasy by the moment, the magic vapors surrounding us suddenly evaporating.
"What is it?" I asked.
He remained stubbornly silent.
"I have been honest with you, sir. You must do me the honor likewise. What do you know of Jacopo Strozzi?"
"That he will soon be partners with an enemy of my father."
A sharp breath escaped me. "That enemy's name is Capelletti," I whispered.
"It is. How do you know this?"
"My father is Capello Capelletti." I found myself anguished at speaking the next words. "Our families are at war with one another."
He turned where he stood but did not walk away. I could see his body trembling. My own felt suddenly weak.
"What are you doing in this house?" My voice was urgent. "The Medici bear no more love for the Monticecco than do the Capelletti."
"I came to change that," Romeo said, turning back to me. "These are ancient rivalries, and Don Cosimo is a reasonable man. He claims to want peace in Florence. I sought an audience with him. I was too late to see him before the ball, but I will speak to him before the night is over."
"Ah, Romeo…" Now it was I at a loss for words. I was a girl with knowledge of my father's business with this family. I was not a traitor, yet I felt compelled to say: "Are you so sure this feud is ancient?"
"What do you mean?"
"What do you know of a sunken cargo ship?"
I could say no more. "I must go."
He took my arm in a desperate grip. I looked down at his hand, square and strong, and wished my poem alive—Oh, that Romeo held my face tender in his palm—but I pulled from his grasp, refusing to meet his eye.
Lifting my skirts, I ran from the garden. The palazzo vestibule felt small and stuffy, its pale green marble suddenly sinister in the torchlight. I hurried up the stairs to the ballroom, rear-ranging my face to hide the chaos of feeling and lies.
And not a moment too soon.
My father reared up before me like a jagged mountain peak.
"Where have you been!" he demanded, having to shout above the music and the mass of people dancing.
"I'm sorry, Papa, I felt ill. I went to the garden for a breath of air. I'm better now."
His eyes were in line with the doorway and I thought suddenly that Romeo might enter just behind me—a dangerous coincidence. I took my father's arm and brought him around, facing away from the door, then turned on my girlish charms, those he had always delighted in, in my younger years.
"Did you dance with Mama?" I asked, smiling up at him. "You know how she loves a saltarello."
"No," he growled, unamused, "I was too busy consoling Signor Strozzi, who was unable to find my daughter."
"Well, he mustn't have tried very hard," I answered with a flash of peevishness. "Perhaps a single flight of stairs was too hard on his poor old bandy legs."
"Juliet!" Papa swung me around to face him. His expression was as red and ragged as it had been while he'd talked of his sabotaged business. He did not seem to care that people were staring.
But then neither did I.
His voice was low and threatening. "I am taking you to speak with your betrothed."
"He is not my betrothed yet," was my rebellious retort.
I thought my father's face might explode with his fury, but now he was aware of the scene he was creating in the Medici ballroom, and he reined himself in. His voice remained threatening.
"We will speak of your unruliness later. But now you will begin comporting yourself like the noblewoman you seem to have forgotten you are, and you will make your apologies to Signor Strozzi for your absence. Then you will satisfy him that he has chosen for himself a proper Florentine wife and not some wild, willful child that will bring him nothing but ill fortune in his life. Do you understand?"
As he pulled me around the dance floor's perimeter, I heard him muttering, "This is your mother's fault.… Too permissive… the price of educating a girl…"
I smiled to myself. Too late. Knowledge is inside me. It cannot be unlearned.
Then I was standing before Jacopo Strozzi. He was not, as my father had indicated, waiting with bated breath to see me. Clearly he was straining to hear a conversation being carried on by two bankers nearby about the papal curia's treasury deficit.
"She was dizzy," my father told Jacopo. "Needed some air. Please excuse me." He disappeared into the crowd.
"Good evening, signorina," Jacopo said, hard-pressed to tear himself away from the financial gossip. He forced himself, however, and bowed to me with great formality.
"Good evening, signor," I answered in kind, and curtsied perfunctorily.
"You're looking lovely this evening."
Suddenly he stiffened so sharply at the sight of something behind me that I turned to see what had alarmed him. It was his mother, her eyes fixed on the pair of us with such blatant interest that even I grew uncomfortable. I turned back to Jacopo, taking pity on the poor man.
"A beautiful evening," I said, striving for levity. "The night air was cool. It cleared my head."
"Why did it need clearing?" he asked, forcing himself to recover from the embarrassment.
"Three dances without stopping. I was overheated." I looked down at my gown. "The brocade is a bit heavy."
I caught him staring at my chest and imagined him enchanted with my bosom. But his next words disabused me of the thought.
"That is a rare weave," he said of my dusty rose bodice. "The warp, I would say, is the pink, the woof a soft gray, or perhaps tawny." He seemed to be warming to his subject, his mother forgotten. "Whichever, the effect is soft and elegant." He fixed me with one of his ghastly smiles. "You wear it well, my lady."
"How kind of you to say so," I replied. I searched for any reasonable conversation. "Are brocades your specialty?" I seemed to remember my father had decided to bring the man into his textile business for some talent or another.
But Jacopo's concentration had been drawn elsewhere, as the pair nearby who discussed the curia's holdings mentioned an astonishingly large sum of money.
"And you were saying? Signor Strozzi," I prodded him, annoyed at how tenuous was my hold on the attentions of my future husband.
"I was saying… ?" He became flustered with his complete lapse in memory of our conversation.
"Brocades are your specialty?" I prompted.
"Brocades and wool," he said, composing himself. "Many find wool a dull cloth, but I find it exciting." He spoke the last word with little conviction, but in fact a dull gleam had come into Jacopo's eyes. "It is all in the sheep, you see…"
Just then I saw Romeo enter the room. I struggled to hold my attention on Signor Strozzi, who was now droning on about the grazing habits of English ewes, while I followed the movements of my lithe and handsome young poet as he wove single-mindedly through the crowd toward Cosimo de' Medici.
"Have you noticed that? Lady Juliet?"
"Oh, ah … so sorry. Have I noticed…?"
"That English wool is softer, less scratchy on the skin?"
"You know, I have actually. I own a wine-colored wool gown that feels as smooth as silk."
"My point exactly," he said with what, in this gentleman, must pass for delight. "If you show me that dress, I will be able to tell you the very county in which those sheep grazed."
"Really?" I coughed, covering my mouth, so I could turn away from Jacopo, for Romeo was now standing by Don Cosimo's side, waiting patiently while he spoke to his wife, Contessina. Then she moved away. I coughed again. "Signor Strozzi," I said in a weak voice, "would you be so kind as to pat me on the back?"
"Of course, of course," he said, and complied, though I noticed he took the opportunity to lean in the direction of the two men discussing the pope's finances.
Romeo had succeeded in gaining Don Cosimo's attention. From the Medici's expression I could see his young petitioner had wasted no time getting to his point. The older man's look was grave, but he was nodding his head as Romeo spoke, passion animating his face, his hands—those beautiful hands—expressively slicing and chopping the air before him.
"A few more pats and I will be fine," I said to Jacopo, who was as distracted as I.
Now Don Cosimo was speaking to Romeo, who listened with rapt attention to every syllable uttered. He looked as though he wished to reply, but Cosimo's monologue had become a lecture—one that was, in fact, growing louder so that even across the room, with music still playing, I heard several fragments—"ancient hatreds" and "unlikely reconciliation."
The two had attracted attention to themselves, and now I saw a group of young men pointing to Romeo. A snarling face. A fist raised. He had been recognized—Daniel in the lion's den!
Commotion ensued and as the room erupted, I used the diversion to slip away from Jacopo's ministrations. Romeo was making for the double doors, a gang of noble thugs gaining on him. I darted in from the other side, coming face-to-face with him for the briefest moment—long enough for him to revel in my need to see him.
His smile was brilliant. "The cathedral, noon on Wednesday," he said, then darted away and down the marble stairs.
I planted myself square in the middle of the doorway with an innocent smile on my face. The toughs were forced to stop short to keep from knocking me down. I cried out, as if terrified by the sight of them bearing down on me. They moved to the right and I feinted right. They tried the left and I, with a girlish giggle, moved left, guileless and confused.
By now Romeo had certainly made the street. I curtsied prettily and let the frustrated ruffians pass, satisfied with my impromptu performance.
I sidestepped to a window overlooking the street to claim one more vision of this daring soul, but was greeted by nothing more than sight of his pursuers bursting from the front door and running out into the empty, torchlit street, with futile looks this way and that.
Then all at once a white horse exploded from an alleyway into their midst, scattering the men like a handful of dice thrown on the ground. They loudly cursed the rider.
It was Romeo!
I thrilled as the mount reared up proudly on two legs and crashed down again. Then amid a terrible clattering of hooves on cobble, horse and master sped off into the dark.
I wondered how I could calmly return to Jacopo Strozzi—his grazing ewes and monetary distractions. All my thoughts were of this Monticecco man, so recently a stranger, now a star at the center of my universe. And I wondered at the time and place for the future assignation he had announced—the cathedral at noon on Wednesday. Why the Duomo? And why in broad daylight?
And then I knew. I sighed happily. Romeo. My poet. My friend. Vita Nuova.
A New Life!