The Republic of Florence
Nicholas slammed the door behind him. The arched entranceway had barely kept the rising sun from his heels.
“Signore!” Perla appeared in the foyer, black eyebrows raised. As she curtseyed, a braid expertly bleached by sun and lemon juice fell forward over her green linen gown. “We had not expected you before autumn.”
“Is your mistress staying at the Palazzo Medici again?” Nicholas asked the impeccable little maid as he shrugged off his travel cloak into her hands. It felt good to be home in the courtyard house near the Arno, with its steeply shadowed, shuttered windows, the painted cassoni chests he had commissioned, and servants inured to the oddities of those who lived forever in the night. It would feel better yet to be home in Janette’s arms. “I heard that Nannina is visiting her brothers. Has my lady joined her?”
“No, signore.” Perla examined the cloak critically. “Or, rather, yes, Nannina di Piero is in Florence, but she has been unable to reconcile Clarice Orsini to the signora. They quarrelled shortly after you and Patrizio Lacroix left for Rome. The signora is of la bella Donati’s faction, you know.” Perla folded the cloak instead of hanging it on a peg, consigning it to the mending basket. “The signora went to bed early today, right after—” Perla’s eyes flew wide and her mouth snapped closed. She began again: “The heat lately has not agreed with her, so she has begun retiring before sunrise.”
“But of course!” Perla crossed her arms. “Where else?”
Nicholas did not hear or smell Janette presently in their home, and the sun had already cleared the horizon. He took half the steps in one stride, the rest in the next. He swept aside the hangings, revealing a bed unmade ... but unoccupied.
Perla reached the top of the stairs. “She was right here, signore! You wrong her if you think—”
“Forget whether she shares another’s bed! Is she out of the sun?” Nicholas grasped Perla’s shoulders and captured her gaze with the vampire’s compulsion. “Where is Janette?”
“She was right here,” the maid repeated.
Nicholas released her and closed his eyes. One by one, he dismissed his external senses and searched within for the tether spanning the bloodline of Lacroix. Somewhere near the warm, clear spring that had not, after all, dried up when he was brought across; somewhere close to the fount of music, art and love, where, puzzlingly, the words of the Maid of Orléans yet echoed; somewhere almost … and there it drifted, slack across the void. Nicholas pulled himself to Janette by that tether.
She was not dead. And not in pain. Anything more was beyond him.
Janette’s gaze roamed rapidly behind her closed eyelids. Shards of memory dragged her mortal feet down a torchlit corridor in faraway Paris, between one transaction and the next. But when she turned the corner, she said, “Ah, Davieux! Do you have the gold you owe me?”
He could not answer, being dead, so she took half of what he had and sent him on his way.
“Rotate your crops,” Anna advised, an infant at her breast. The stone walls melted as the baby sucked, and the stars above slid around the seasons. “Migratory farmhands will wait by the well in the town square. Never veto the reeve elected by your serfs, but hold them liable in common if he defaults. Tenants require manorial courts and all their expenses.”
“Yes, but out of whose purse?” Janette wondered.
The Englishwoman chuckled. “Have you not laced it securely to your belt, heavy there beneath your new overgown? What a fashion — those sleeves!”
Nicholas opened his eyes. He unwound muscles tensed to spring and sat heavily on his and Janette’s bed. He looked around their chamber.
Little seemed to have changed in the months since he had accompanied Lacroix to Rome. They had journeyed on an open commission to purchase ancient books for the promising young Lorenzo’s burgeoning library, and a secret charge to deliver pledges for imperiled Medici investments and alliances. Of course, the capstone of all incentives had been the teeming mob of those whom the eternal city would never miss, unlike Florence’s increasingly orderly streets. But, at the last moment, Janette had declined to join them — curiously, not perturbing Lacroix with her refusal — and Nicholas had found that even such consistently easy feeding palled quickly without her, or their friends, or the studios blossoming with the new ways of painting. Rome was no Florence.
“Bah! Go find a war to fight!” Lacroix, neck-deep in intrigue, had despaired of his protégé. “Politics is won with a whisper, Nicholas, not a sword — at the supper table more than in the saddle.” He had toyed with a jeweled goblet, now scrubbed twice over with salt and vinegar. “And, yes, at need, with canterella powder or oil of bitter almonds, though they do so odiously taint the blood. Did you pay no attention in your father the Duke’s court?”
“I remain a simple soldier,” Nicholas had snorted. Politics had sent him first to Wales and then the Levant, disemboweling his ideals of knighthood. The politics he had recently witnessed at Lacroix’s right hand were no more debased, but neither were they any less. The treachery had sickened him as much as the poisoned wine he had unwittingly shared, learning intimately that vampires were not immune to dire potions; they merely did not die of them. “Shall I report to the Gonfaloniere of Justice, offering my poor skills to the Republic?”
Lacroix had laughed. “Indeed, go play young men’s games with Lorenzo and his brother while their time is ripe. Our time never ends.”
Nicholas had swept a bow and spurred his horse north toward Florence.
Here at home, spring cleaning had beaten away much dust and rubbed away more tarnish. Summer custom had packed up the fur robes and dense woolen blankets. The kirtle that Janette had then just begun embroidering was now complete and hanging on a peg, while a newly pieced partlet topped her workbasket. Perla had lightened her brown hair more successfully than Nicholas had ever seen in his long life, come to think on it, remarkably achieving the precise creamy flaxen fairness that had been admired on women for as long as he could remember; the cunning man behind that recipe would be able to name his price in any court, if he could keep his alchemical secret. The chess game on the table had not waited for Nicholas’ move. The warped door panel had been replaced. Thus far what he could see; what could he not see?
“Perla, you said that the heat disagreed with Janette,” Nicholas remembered. “What did you mean?”
The little maid pursed her lips. “My father was an apothecary, as you know. I remember how many people came for remedies in the dog days. It is not unusual that the signora might also feel the influence of the stars.”
Perla crossed her arms and frowned back. When Nicholas laughed, she relaxed. “I suppose that this is no secret from you, signore. Yes, the signora wakes in the heat after noon, just when everyone else begins their riposo, and she struggles to return to sleep.”
“That makes no sense.” Heat and cold touched their kind no more than loud and quiet. “Sultry weather has never bothered her before.”
“We all change as time passes.”
Her dream flattened three centuries through a mangle, pressing out the differences like water. The similarities became a Venetian masquerade, brilliant with candles and glass. She looked up at Nicolas, masked, through her own mask. “Freedom is expensive.”
“Must we ransom you?” He raised her hands to his soft lips beneath his gilded bauta. “I warn you, I would strike a terrible bargain. Everything we own at the first parlay. My life at the second.”
“Do we own anything — even ourselves?” In time to the music, she pulled his fingers to her mask over her lips. “Shall I share a secret, mon amor? I have learned lessons of these merchants and bankers and guildmembers. From now on, I can ransom myself.”
His fingertips wandered from her mask to her neck, where her slow pulse rushed to his touch. The flames and their reflections became an incandescent display, a fountain of slow-burning gunpowder showering her in gold and silver sparks. She shuddered and melted. Nicolas whispered, “Will you still need me?”
“That is the point, mon coeur. I wish not to need anyone.”
“But indeed, signore, I am not myself in these days, either.” Perla looked at her hands; her immaculate fingertips were bluish, as if bloodless in icy winter. It struck Nicholas that her skin had sunken into sallowness from the vital olive he had left in the spring. “At first, I thought the signora was checking my bargaining with tradesmen for the household, and then I realized that she was abroad in her sleep! I have guided her back to her bed many times of late.”
Nicholas blinked. Then he strode into the adjacent chamber, and, finding it empty, headed for the third and last beyond it on this level. He did not know whether vampires could sleepwalk, but he did know this house. When the third room proved empty, Nicholas spun on his heel and ran down the stairs. Perla believed that Janette had been safe in her own bed before sunrise; therefore, either Janette had flown elsewhere moments before he arrived, or she was still here.
Among doors to the outside and an uncovered garden courtyard on the inside.
Janette had not considered death a choice, so she had not considered the Light a choice. If it wanted her, it would have to raise its bid and bargain in a currency she recognized.
Yet the Light reached out for her now, uncurling from its sham door, expanding in a molten fog. It shone on her commercial ventures, hidden where not even Lacroix, never mind Nicolas, could think to look. Exposing her stakes, her returns, her accounts. Exposing her plans for independence, her hopes of freedom. Exposing her. The Light was all around, fire beyond sky, sea, earth. All was Light...
Janette awoke, screaming.
The tether of shared blood snapped taut in Nicholas. Then, his ears registered her cry. Leaving Perla upstairs, he leaped down the steps and flew through the house into the covered portico surrounding the garden, an arm’s length of sheltering shadow before the scorching light. His eyes adjusted enough to see that the fatally sun-drenched central square was empty.
And then Janette was in his arms. Smoke rose from her blistered face and hands and feet and breast — everywhere her sleeping shift had exposed her skin. Her eyes smoldered and her fangs glistened. He cradled her to him, lifting her scant weight as he stepped back into the house and around the corner into the shielding darkness of their hearth room.
“Go back upstairs,” Nicholas hissed. He held Janette close now not in relief, but to preserve their valuable servant from Janette’s pain-stoked hunger. Janette fought him. Nicholas barked at Perla: “Go! Now!”
Janette broke from his embrace as Perla scurried up the steps.
“No!” Nicholas scrambled to block Janette’s way. “Here.” He enfolded her in his arms again and sank to his knees with her before him, lifting his chin. “Here.”
“You—!" Janette ripped his collar with her hands and tore her teeth into the crook of his neck.
His blood flowed into hers; vampiric joy swamped human agony. Nicholas held himself checked, savoring her invited incursion, the confluence of her needs now and his cravings these many months. But when his strength ebbed to her wounds, he snarled and pushed her free. Janette pressed back, finding his lips and tongue and teeth; their kisses tasted of his blood. Nicholas lifted her left hand between them, pressed his lips against her palm, and slowly sank his fangs through the newly-healed skin of her wrist.
“Yes,” Janette laughed. “There.” She curled around his side and lapped at the laceration she had ripped across his throat. “There.”
The brilliance of her blood, the curve of her flesh, the ferocity of her demands — around his fangs, under his fingers, beyond his thoughts — dazzled Nicholas. Only later, upstairs in their bed in the heat of the day, did a bitter aftertaste creep across his tongue and his dreams, opening his closed eyes. This was not, alone, the savor of Janette. Something had been added.
But he could not stir enough to separate knowledge from nightmare. The creeping bitterness paralyzed his sleepy thoughts. It sucked him down into a restless dreamworld, and urged him to forget that very restlessness. Soothed that Janette and he could not be safer than in each other’s arms, Nicholas slumbered.
Eventually, he woke to the cool of the night, the light of several tapers, and the bustle of Janette’s preparations for society. Hazy with sleep, he saw Perla help Janette don and drape a red velvet overgown of the new fashion, with revers and collar, and voluminous sleeves that looked odd to him after the ever tighter lacing becoming the rage in Rome. Nicholas found that he now looked forward to telling Janette everything he had seen and done in the city on the seven hills, which seemed more interesting now, in the prospect of regaling her, than it had while he threaded the twin needles of its sanctity and corruption on the invisible board of Lacroix’s never-ending game. Nicholas watched Perla arrange an almost invisible veil over Janette’s otherwise daringly loose hair.
Slowly, the luxurious familiarity of his own bed receded; the morning’s dangers returned. Had Perla told Janette about her sleepwalking? Surely not, or Janette would have barred the exterior doors against herself, or perhaps draped them with bells. Did Perla consider sleepwalking too negligible to mention, or find it unseemly and seek to spare Janette embarrassment? He would have to speak with the two women separately. Fully awake now, Nicholas sat up in bed.
Janette noticed. Her eyes danced, reflecting not her peril the previous morning, but their reunion throughout the day.
Finding a grin already lifting his lips, Nicholas nodded. Then he raised his eyebrows questioningly toward Perla.
“I thought you might sleep the night away,” Janette said lightly, tilting her head to indicate that Perla remembered nothing mortals were not meant to know. Vulnerability to vampiric ensorcellment had been the maid’s first qualification for employment in their household; competence, scrupulosity and extraordinary skill in her late father’s craft had been happy gratuities. “But I know how you must be looking forward to hunting — after such a day.”
Nicholas chuckled, standing and retrieving his doublet and hose. “Will you hunt with me?”
“Sadly, I have obligations. Commitments.” Janette sat on the edge of the bed while Perla opened a small cask with tidy compartments of salves, powders and tiny stoppered jars. “Perhaps I should have foreseen that Lacroix would—” she paused “—allow you to return early. But I did not.”
Nick laced up his clothes. “I thought you had quarreled with Lorenzo’s wife. Does that not free your nights? Or do his sister and la bella Donati truly overshadow her that far?”
“Do not underestimate Clarice Orsini,” Janette snapped. Then she pursed her lips and rolled her shoulders noncommittally. “The comings and goings of the Palazzo Medici remain absorbing, regardless. A hunt there may take many seasons.” Janette sat still while Perla expertly rubbed a white paste over Janette’s face with her fingertips. “As much as I would enjoy accompanying you, Nicolas, you must hunt alone tonight. So do hunt long and well and wide, because I look forward to sharing in your … bounty … after.”
The chalky ointment joining Perla’s and Janette’s skins suddenly hooked into Nicholas’s perceptions like a boot into a stirrup. Janette’s restless days; Perla’s blonde hair, sallow skin and bloodless fingertips; the supper tables of Rome’s notables; and that faint metallic wrongness slinking through his nightmares...
“Poison.” Venoms, caustics and potions would not kill a vampire as they would a human, but not dying did not mean not suffering, as Lacroix had not scrupled to demonstrate. Nicholas gestured at Janette and Perla’s ingredients and compounds: “Are these all new? The cask is new.”
“Poison? Remedies! Beauty aids!” Perla threw back her shoulders. “With the signora’s help, I—”
“Yes, the cosmetics are recent acquisitions,” Janette’s voice rose over her maid’s protest, and she gave Perla a sharp look. “Has the holy city made you a sudden moralist to inveigh against vanity, Nicolas? You never minded before.”
“What are you talking about?” Nicholas took a pinch of the white cream from its niche in Perla’s cask and brought it to his nose. “It is this. But not this alone.”
Perla chewed the corner of her lip.
Janette stood and steered Nicholas away from Perla and her cask. “There is nothing unusual here, Nicolas. Except perhaps Clarice Orsini herself, every married woman, hopeful girl and courtesan in the city enhances her attractions when she can. These are wholesome ingredients for harmless artifices in great demand. Commerce from Christendom to Cathay thrives on such simples.”
“Are any of these gifts?” he persisted. “Bargains? From unexpected peddlers or ships liquidating supposedly unclaimed cargo?”
“No.” Perla frowned. “We—”
“Oh!” A tiny smile lifted Janette’s lips. She looked almost relieved. “Now I see. You suspect my friends of attempting ... that at which they cannot possibly succeed. I am here, yet.”
“But where were you this morning?” Nicholas raised a thumb to her cheek and rubbed away some of the chalky salve. “Have you been donning this paint every night since spring?” He whispered in her ear, “I could taste it, Janette. You cleaned your skin, but it froths and crusts and sinks in your blood like sand in a tub.”
Janette lifted her chin and watched his eyes. Her eyebrows drew down. “Perla, give him the cask.”
Nicholas rubbed off the salve from his fingers on the underside of his doublet hem. Then he sat on the bed with the assorted ingredients and identified bone ash by its garlic-like smell, in a compartment among ground pigment powders, including a brilliant crystalline green he recognized from the new linseed-oil painting style, and a precious ultramarine blue that he marveled even Janette could have wheedled from Lacroix’s purse. Bone ash plus the chalky paste on his fingers … yes, as subtle and faint as was the combination here, this substance pure and in quantity could rot a human body from inside to out. He had watched it happen. “How long after you began using this recipe did your restless sleep start, Janette? Your wan fingertips, Perla?”
“But, signore, it is highly effective for the complexion.” The maid was visibly upset; Nicholas’s eyes narrowed. Perla pleaded to Janette, “You know there is none better!”
“He is correct, nonetheless. Something has gone awry, and we cannot afford—” Janette pressed her lips together. “It will be all right, Perla. For now, put away the ingredients — all the ingredients — and fetch some clean wash water.” Perla curtseyed, took the cask from Nicholas and disappeared downstairs.
“Who would want you dead, Janette?” Nicholas drummed his fingers against the thick bedpost. “The Orsinis?”
“Do not be absurd. Perla makes these compounds herself from raw ingredients, to her own recipes, in our buttery. This is a mishap, not a murder attempt.”
“Is Perla subornable?” Nicholas raised his eyebrows. “Did she tell you that you have been sleepwalking? Perhaps vampiric enchantment no longer works on her; perhaps she knows our secrets, and when it became clear that the poison would not kill you, she decided to let you walk into the sun — exactly as you did this morning!”
“I tell you there is no assassin.” Janette crossed her arms, dragging her overgown’s formidable sleeves. “Clarice is far too devout for such a means to cross her mind, and she has no allies in the palazzo. You would feel sorry for her, Nicolas. Her husband writes poetry to la bella Donati, and her sister-in-law— but there, you see? My opponent is helpless; my allies have her in their power.”
“That is exactly when a weapon such as poison is used.” Nicholas reached out to Janette, but let his hands fall when she did not unfold her arms. “Politics is beyond me. If it is beyond you, too, we will go to Rome for Lacroix.”
Surprised by Janette’s vehemence, Nicholas waited quietly.
For three turns around the chamber, she paced like a caged tiger. Then she sighed, sat next to Nicholas and leaned against his shoulder. “You must think I lead an idle time of it here, while you and Lacroix are abroad in the world.”
“You?” Nicholas grinned. “I know tedium is your nemesis. I do not always understand your occupations, but I am all gratitude that you make time for me between them.”
Janette smiled softly and closed her eyes. “Shall I tell you a story, Nicolas? Il était une fois, there was a woman who was neither a queen nor a widow, but who longed to be independent. If someday her guardian or husband proved too cruel to bear — or too dull to endure — or they shamed or abandoned or abused her — she would be able to walk away in dignity and safety. But how could a woman accomplish this wild scheme? She thought and thought. Then, one night, she met a sorceress.”
“A sorceress?” Nicholas smirked.
“Yes, a sorceress. Hush. Now, the sorceress was trapped in the guise of a mere maid, and her magical potions appeared as humble skin cream and hair dye, until someone would believe in her and set her free. The woman believed, and the transformation began. But in the end, her wish and the sorceress’s could be granted only together, through patience and hard work. Can you imagine how?”
Nicholas knew that he had once been naive; he trusted that had never been stupid. “They could make a great deal of money, selling potions that color hair and smooth skin.”
“I believe that crossed their minds, yes.” Janette opened her eyes and smiled up at him, her cheeks rounding with amusement.
“And the woman did not want her guardian to know because he could never accept independence of him.” Nicholas turned the situation around in his mind. The existence of Janette’s business arrangement, of itself, neither exonerated Perla nor disproved attempted murder, no matter what Janette thought; her parable of their vampiric family, on the other hand, was both clear now and plausibly deniable later, should Lacroix invade Nicholas’s mind. “Yet surely the woman’s husband would have understood?”
“Would he?” Janette asked.
As Nicholas began to move his arm around her, the sounds belowstairs declared that Perla was having to set down a full water basin to receive a delivery at the back door.
Janette leaped to her feet. “How late we are! The night is slipping through our grasp!” She extended her hand and tugged him upright, then down the stairs. “The sooner you begin your hunt, the sooner Perla and I can complete our business for the night and I can join you. We must celebrate your return; I must hear about Rome. Go! Go!” Laughing, she nudged him toward the front door.
In the foyer, however, Nicholas picked up the scent of the new linseed-oil-and-pigment mixture that the foremost artists had begun using, along with the scent and sounds of the visitor Perla had admitted. Intrigued, Nicholas disentangled his hand from Janette’s grasp and started for the hearth room, only to find Perla and her water basin in his way.
“It is but a workman about his work, signore. You need not concern yourself.”
Janette took Nicholas’s arm. “Do not lose the dark, mon amor. Hunt now or we shall both go hungry through the long day.”
In the hearth room, someone was lighting candle after candle.
“This will only take a moment.” Nicholas pressed past Janette and Perla. He found himself dazzled by an array of tapers with dancing flames, ingeniously arranged on ladderlike risers lining the walls behind a chair and around an artist’s easel.
“Signore.” The handsome young man lighting the candles stopped and bowed. His prominent nose looked elegant in the light but strange in the shadows. “Signora,” he added, when Janette stepped up beside Nicholas. “I bear you a letter from la bella Donati, and additional orders for Perla’s wares.”
Behind Janette, Perla choked.
“It is all right, Perla. He knows, now.” Janette turned to Nicholas. “This is Leonardo, Nicolas, from Verrocchio's studio. This shall be his last student work before he becomes a master in the Guild of Saint Luke — is that right, Leonardo?”
Nicholas circled to the other side of the easel. On a wood panel treated with fine gesso, bright oil paints strove to capture Janette, her smile and the angle of her head in motion, with her dress and hair as she had arranged them tonight. The work was almost complete, testifying to many hours invested by both artist and subject.
“Master painter, this is very fine work,” Nicholas addressed the young man, who nodded, impassive. Nicholas had spent enough time patronizing Verrocchio and other painters to have more articulate opinions, but all he could muster at the moment was awe. “Janette, have you considered the consequences of the … family resemblance ... over time? We cannot allow Lacroix a pretext against this portrait.”
“He knows and approves — or he did in the spring, at least.” Janette gestured for Perla to set down the basin; she washed her face. “I needed an excuse to stay in Florence to attend to our enterprise. Commissioning this surprise gift for you won me dispensation from that journey to Rome.”
“For me?” Nicholas breathed. He looked from her to the painting not to compare, but with the tangled possessiveness of the man and the vampire toward the woman depicted and the art depicting her. Art gave and kept at the same time, released and captured in the same moment. The gift was a blind, yes. It was also perfectly suited, as only Janette could understand. “Thank you.”
“Welcome home.” She dried her hands on the cloth Perla presented. “Now go! Hunt! I am depending on you.”
Nicholas bowed very low. “Always depend on me.”