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When Miranda came to Milan, she found she was a monster.
She'd been given a queen's welcome in Naples, that lovely city on the sea, but as they'd moved inland, the warm breeze had left them, and she found herself among stony-eyed strangers who refused her gaze, who seemed loath to touch her flesh. They treated her like Caliban, her ladies-in-waiting and royal relatives.
They arrived in Milan on a cold, gray day, and as they approached, the castle of her ancestors looked more like a prison than her rightful home. Its high ramparts stretched into the mist, leached of color by the pendulous clouds, and its black mouth gaped wide, swallowing them as their carriage passed through the gates. Miranda trembled, for she could no longer see the sky. Her whole life through, sea and sky had surrounded her: with neither in sight to give her bearings, she hardly knew where she was.
Her father had vanished into the labyrinth of the castle as soon as they arrived, seizing back the rooms his usurping brother, Antonio, had taken over while Prospero was in exile, gathering his left-behind books, and sequestering himself in his libraries to pore over the new tomes that he demanded his servants bring him right away, the advances in alchemy that he had missed while on the island. He left her with barely a word after ordering the servants to settle Miranda into her rooms, though he had insisted that she accompany him here, to see her home once more before she married Ferdinand and settled in Naples.
"I thought we were married?" she'd said, in the carriage. He had turned to her, eyes still on the countryside out the window, and replied, "Hm? Oh, yes — but marriages of princes are contentious things, and the island where you were wed exists on no map. We'll let the Neapolitans take care of the formalities, the law. There's no hurry, now that we've returned."
She did not understand what this meant: she knew nothing of law, or of marriage, or of the nuances of love, though she did her best to grasp their meanings. Her father had never spoken to her of these matters in any depth, and now, in her rightful homeland, she began to realize how much she did not know, how much she could not ask. The island they had left behind held fathomless mysteries, but it also moved to natural rhythms Miranda could observe and decipher: the animal cries that rose and fell with dawn and dusk, the changing patterns of certain leaves that signified shifts in the seasons. But she could not work out the chaotic patterns of the men and women of the mainland, and she especially could not fathom why they recoiled from her, why the ladies at her elbows hurried her so from place to place, why they made her wear a full black veil, its lacy darkness obscuring her vision like storm clouds moving over sun.
Only a few weeks before, she had felt jubilant on the shores of her island. For a dozen years she and Prospero had lived in isolation on their lonely stretch of sand, cast out from their homeland after her uncle Antonio usurped her father and claimed the dukedom of Milan for his own, and for Naples. Prospero told her the sad tale of how Antonio had worked with the king of Naples to bring about Prospero's downfall, using scurrilous claims about his magic to unseat Prospero from the throne and turn good men against him. Her father had shipwrecked Antonio and the Neapolitans on their humble isle in order to bring his perfidy to light, revealing her uncle's evil deeds.
"Now," her father had proclaimed to the assembled men, his clever plan complete, "we will fly swift to Italy, and my Miranda will claim her birthright as a duke's daughter and take her place beside noble Ferdinand as princess of Naples."
She'd watched Ferdinand embrace his father, King Alonso, with tears of joy, for each had thought the other drowned in the storm that brought them to this strange isle, the storm her father had created. Her father had his arms around Gonzalo, the counselor from Naples who had shown them kindness many years before, giving them provisions that had seen them through their terrible journey at sea. Rightful order was restored, their sorrow was now ended, and all was well in Milan and Naples once more.
Yet her uncle Antonio's silence disquieted her. He stood outside the circle of warmth, speaking not a word as the air around him rang with laughter and glad cries. His chilly hush, she thought at first, must of course owe its cause to the exposure of his treachery. But no, she saw shock upon his face, as though he had glimpsed some ghast there, on the beach, some vision that chilled him to the bone, even in the island's gentle heat.
Yet it was not Prospero he looked upon with haunted, salt-burned eyes.
It was her.
* * *
The only person in Milan who did not treat Miranda like an abomination was Dorothea.
They sent Dorothea into Miranda's room on her seventh day in the castle. No one had said a civil word to her in a week: the servants always scurried in, moved around her as though she were a cockroach, and locked the door on their way out, their faces far paler than when they'd entered. They would let her leave her quarters if she asked but insisted on having a girl dress her, to force the hated veil over her face. And so she had chosen confinement. At least here she could remain herself, barefaced, unobserved. The two opulent adjoining rooms with their painted walls and gilded trinkets became her cave, and she had begun to feel like a badger, fierce and frustrated and afraid of the strange two-legged creatures all around her.
She had begun to poke at those who entered her den, asking them, again and again, why she could not roam the castle freely without the cumbersome veil over her face, the veil that felt as though she had run face-first into a clump of spiderwebs. She demanded to see her father but was told that he was cloistered in his quarters, or in important meetings with emissaries from far-flung locales that he could not possibly interrupt, or simply unavailable every time she asked. Beyond their curt responses to her queries, none of the servants spoke more than a dozen words to her: that is, until Dorothea.
Miranda had sulked at the girl at first, unhappy at the presence of yet another individual who would try to bind her into a corset or tame her curly hair, all the while managing to gape, recoil, and block her exit in concert. She'd never asked for servants: she'd never wanted them. She could manage perfectly well on her own.
(Well, that wasn't entirely true: she had wished for an Ariel of her own, once. An ethereal slave to do her bidding, like those under her father's command. But when Prospero found her cultivating one of the small island spirits, he beat her black and blue. Since that day, Miranda had learned to handle her own affairs.)
"So they sent you to gawk at me, did they?" She sat cross-legged on the bed, in the pose that had infuriated the maids who'd unpacked her things. "The savage? The feral girl? What tales do they tell of me in this dank, dirty castle?"
The girl continued to dust and tidy, never slacking. "It's a beautiful castle, my lady. If you ever left your room, you'd know."
Miranda leapt from the bed, snarling. "You had better not take that tone with me. I'll — I'll —"
"You'll what?" The girl was only inches from her now, amusement plain beneath her placid expression. Miranda racked her brain. None of her usual threats to Caliban applied, or vice versa. She couldn't shove the girl into the sea, or drop her from a cliff onto the eastern rocks, or command Ariel to scrape out her innards and feed them to the gulls.
She folded her arms. "I'll tell my father."
"Your father," said the girl, turning back to her cleaning, "does not hold as much sway here as you think he does."
"Why are you talking to me this way?"
"Because I'm a witch. I have nothing to fear from you or your father."
"A witch?" Miranda examined the girl, whose black hair and hazel eyes looked plain enough. "Like Sycorax." She stepped back, dark memories flooding into her mind. "Then your magic is no match for my father's."
"Your father's magic relies on books." The girl knelt to attend to the floorboards. "And everyone says he threw his books into the sea."
For this Miranda had no retort. This girl, she saw, did not flinch beneath her gaze or avoid her eyes. "Do the others know you're a witch? All the others living in this castle?"
"They know." Dorothea rose, setting her hands on her hips. "It's why they sent me to deal with you. They're as afraid of me as they are of you, but they think perhaps I can tame the monster."
Miranda grimaced, baring her teeth: an old habit, one learned from Caliban, who used it to intimidate her. She corrected herself, pursing her lips, waiting for the girl's mockery; but Dorothea didn't laugh. "I don't think you're a monster, though. I hope you know that. I think you're alone, and scared, and that you come from very far away. You don't know the customs here, and that isn't your fault. My family didn't either, when we first came to these shores. But we learned. You can learn, if you want to, in time."
"I do not wish to acquire the customs of people who behave so barbarically," Miranda retorted. That was her father's language: the only language, other than Caliban's, that she had ever known. But her voice lacked conviction. She had wondered, these past days, what she did want from her homeland. What she wanted from the people who treated her like an unsightly specter, and what she desired to hear when she asked, over and over, if there had been any word from Naples. As badly as she wished to leave Milan, Miranda hardly knew anymore if she wanted to be with Ferdinand. He had not turned out to be the man she imagined when she encountered him in that golden grove on the island. No sooner had they returned to Italy's shores than she saw him begin to cast his gaze about, admiring every beautiful woman they passed. Miranda knew those mooning looks; they were selfsame as those she had treasured when first they met.
Thinking of it now, watching Dorothea dance her way around her room as she attended to the chores, she could hardly blame him, for these creatures, these women of Italy, moved like sea waves and laughed like the chimes of her isle's evenings. She yearned for their kind glances, though they never had any to spare her. They shouted and scintillated, and oh, she thought she had discovered marvels when first she looked upon the faces of new men. But women: women were another wonder entirely.
"I've found that barbarism varies from land to land." Dorothea began to shake out the curtains, and Miranda came out of her reverie, realizing she'd been watching the other girl's every movement the way she once watched swallows flitting through the trees back in her island home. "I've lived in cities all over, from sunny Marrakech, where I was born, to Córdoba to Cologne to Constantinople. Neighbors often called neighbors barbaric, even though they looked and acted and ate almost exactly the same way."
Her words gave Miranda pause. Civilization, her father had always stressed, was what separated Miranda and himself from savages like Caliban. Civilization guided them in their decisions, while Caliban behaved like an animal, with no moral compass or history to draw upon. Prospero and Miranda sprang from a mighty and cultured civilization, and though no hint of that civilization lay around them, he'd explained, they were still elevated by it, still responsible for creating it wherever they traveled. Miranda, who had never witnessed more than three mortal people gathered together until King Alonso's ships came to her island's shores, didn't firmly grasp the concept. Long ago she had thought of civilization as a thin, shimmering cloak, something like the aura she could see around Ariel. She saw no glow on her own skin, though, and felt no noble lineage leading her through life, no matter how often her father promised her that birthright.
"Constantinople." Miranda sat down on the edge of the bed, considering the word. It sounded funny and not at all like the names of other places she knew. "These other cities you lived in — are they in Italy too?"
Dorothea turned her way, her tan skin perspiring lightly from her labors. "They're not. They're far away. Maybe farther than your island. I only came to Italy four years ago, when my mother died, and Milan two years after that. Picked out a new name, learned the language, and that was that. My sister and brother came here with me, but they're gone now."
"They're dead too?"
To her astonishment, Dorothea laughed. "They really didn't teach you any manners on that island, did they?" Miranda flinched, and Dorothea waved a hand. "No, no, I'm not laughing at you. Really. I'm laughing because if you'd said that to anyone else, they would have turned red as a beetroot, and now I wish you had." She came closer to where Miranda sat. "It's not considered polite to go around asking people if their loved ones are dead, you know. At least not without knowing them a little better."
"I ... You're right. It's just that I've never known anyone whose brother and sister died before. I've never known anyone with a brother and sister before."
Dorothea perched on the edge of the bed, crossing her ankles. She raised an eyebrow at Miranda, as though daring her to say something, but Miranda held her tongue. Why shouldn't Dorothea sit on her bed? It was too big for Miranda anyway. She missed her cozy nest of blankets and pillows in their little house on the island, where she would snuggle up by the fire when the wind blew cold and sleep without coverings in the summer. "They didn't die. My sister met a man, and my brother did, too. She followed her husband to the New World, and he's in Orléans with his French soldier."
It hadn't occurred to Miranda that men could wind up with men, but she supposed it made as much sense as a man ending up with a woman. Her knowledge of these affairs, as her courtship with Ferdinand had shown, was woefully scant. "What's in the New World? What's so new about it?"
Dorothea grinned. "It's new because we just started sending ships there, I suppose. And it's different and wild. Mariam couldn't wait to go. The man she married is an explorer." She got up from the bed, gathering up the rags and dusters she'd used on the room. "Speaking of exploring, I should tell you before I go that there's more than one way out of these rooms."
"If you mean the window, I don't know how I'm supposed to climb in these dresses."
"Not the windows — the tunnels. If the common people rise up against you and your cruel and excessive reign, you have to get out one way or another, don't you? So the old dukes built escape tunnels that lead from the royal rooms into the passages beneath the city, or so the other servants say. I'd bet you all the gold in this castle that there's an entrance to one here."
Dorothea shrugged. "How would I know? I'm a common person." She started for the door. "And I have to be getting back. Those noble closestools don't empty themselves, you know." She paused, her hand on the doorknob. "Unless there's something else you need?"
Miranda cleared her throat. "I —" Want you to stay. The girl was nothing like Caliban, but something about the way she spoke reminded Miranda of the only friend she had ever known, though they were friends no longer. "I ... could use an attendant. One assigned to my care. There's lots — there are many things that are new to me, here. I'd ... I'd like your help."
Dorothea arched an eyebrow, a smile playing on her lips. "To learn our barbaric customs, you mean?"
Miranda smiled back, surprised at the relief she felt. "Yes. As I suppose I have to learn them ..." She cleared her throat, suddenly shy. "I'd like it to be from you."
Dorothea gave an exaggerated bow, a clear mockery of servitude. She moved with big, expansive gestures, and there was something about her face Miranda liked to watch, the way her eyes crinkled up at their edges; the way her lips pursed as she prepared to smile. "As you wish, my lady. I'll see if they'll allow the witch and the monster to fraternize on a more permanent basis." She turned to leave, then turned back, stepping forward to take one of Miranda's hands. Miranda froze as Dorothea raised Miranda's hand to her own lips, pressing a small kiss into the skin. "And in the meantime — don't despair. I'll come back soon, one way or another."
She stepped through the doorway, leaving Miranda once again alone. A chill passed through the room, and Miranda shivered, feeling that there was someone standing behind her: but when she turned to see, there was no one there.
Excerpted from "Miranda in Milan"
Copyright © 2019 Katharine Duckett.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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