Sunday, January 13, 2013

The First Three Chapters of The Time Contessa

Please enjoy this sample of the third novel in The Time Mistress Series!

Chapter One

Travel Journal, Jacob Grenefeld, June 12, 1506—I wait for Giuliana on a hillside just outside Firenze. I look out across the landscape: the rolling hills, the patchwork quilt of greens, yellows, browns; olive groves, vineyards, farms. The breeze is warm and as I write, I am almost lulled to sleep. The scent of jasmine is in the air. I wait in the shadow of an oak tree, the trunk so thick that when we sit behind it, we are hidden from anyone passing nearby. This is the only place where we can be alone. We have not made love, for she is a faithful Catholic and will be with no one until she marries. This is my agony. I must return to a far-off world in just a few weeks, a world she can never visit and never understand. She is promised to a man her father has chosen for her, an older man she hasn’t even met. Her marriage to him will unite two wealthy families, one Senese, one Fiorentino. I now understand how the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet came to pass. If Giuliana doesn’t marry this Piero Guerrini, there will be war. So why am I here, under this tree, knowing we can share no more than stolen kisses? 
She’s coming. I see her walking toward me along the path from her father’s estate. Her thick, black hair flows out behind her on the air, and the sun catches its auburn highlights. She wears it free, in undulating waves. Her gown is lightweight to suit the weather. Transparent sleeves of silk show her arms, and the low neck exposes the tops of her shoulders and breasts, so full that, even from a distance, I can see they have their own movement, independent of her confident gait. The color of her dress is nearly the same as her skin, tan, faintly golden, because she will not heed her mother’s advice to stay out of the sun. The shape of her long legs is just visible beneath her skirts. 
She is almost with me now, and I see, as I glance up from my writing, her mocking smile. She thinks I spend too much time with the little portable set of writing implements I created: quill, ink bottle, and this small, handmade diary. She thinks I am too influenced by Maestro da Vinci. Her large, brown eyes laugh as well. I watch her full, rose-colored lips part to speak my name. She is all fullness and sensuality. My Giuliana. I ache to have you.

Cassandra’s face grew warm as she read Jake’s intimate thoughts. It had been nearly five years since he’d time-traveled to Florence and still, his writing seemed too personal, too immediate, for him to be sharing. She set the journal aside.
Her command to open the sensory-net resulted in the holographic blossoming of a piece from the news she’d been following of a collective dream, reported by people all over the world. The living room of Barry Tonns of England appeared in mid-air. The doughy, middle-aged man seemed to be sitting right in front of her on his sagging couch as he spoke.
“I keep dreaming of this picture. It’s a beautiful woman with long, dark hair. The background looks like Italy. I told this guy at work about it and he said he keeps having the same dream.”
Cassandra waved the story of Mr. Tonns away and asked for another. A different hologram appeared of a young woman with black eyes and a prominent nose, her hair covered with a fluttering scarf. She was sitting in a cafĂ©; a greenish blue sea sparkled behind her. Cassandra could almost smell the salty air and feel the hot wind. The young woman’s name traveled across the bottom of the image—Jasmine Ala, Gaza, Palestine—her words automatically translated into English in Cassandra’s ear: “My mother said she was dreaming of a beautiful woman, like a painting, but she didn’t know who it was. She said she had dark brown hair and dark eyes, and thought maybe she was Palestinian. Then I realized I had been having the same dream and thought the woman was Egyptian, but the landscape behind her was not Egypt.”
With another command to the sens-net, Cassandra entered the cluttered, holographic studio of artist Cameron Ralph: “I couldn’t stop dreaming of her so I painted her, recreating the portrait in my dreams as closely as possible.” He gestured to the finished product on a nearby easel. It was a very close replica of the painting Cassandra had dreamt of, but something about it was unsatisfying. He hadn’t quite captured the image that had been haunting her subconscious and that of so many others. These last few weeks, someone always seemed to be talking about the dream on the net.
Her computer emitted a chime, reminding her to wind her watch, as it did every day at three o’clock. She attended to the antique time piece, shut the sens-net, and walked across the hall to her boss’s office, entering without knocking.
She greeted Jake and Professor Carver and plopped down into an old chair that exuded the scent of leather. The familiar office was lined with books, actual books. The professor was seated behind a venerable desk of dark heavy wood. Though his office was located in the one hundred and twenty-year-old Stata Center at MIT, the building exterior was starkly modern compared to this room.
 “I can’t figure it out,” Cassandra said. “Nothing I’ve looked at on the net, nothing I’ve read in your journals, Jake, gets me any closer to understanding why so many people around the world are dreaming about this painting, the painting you swear is of Giuliana.”
 “Professor, would you bring up one of the dreamed images of the painting?” Jake asked.
Professor Carver spoke a command and the replicated painting by Cameron Ralph appeared. Using his hands, the professor enlarged the holographic image until it filled the space before them.
After a moment, Jake spoke. “I may have figured out who the original painter was. I was able to determine that the style of this painting is representative of the Senese Renaissance School, even though it’s interpreted by Ralph’s modern eye. I matched it with work from every known Senese artist from around the time Giuliana lived, and it seems it was done by someone named Francesco Marino. He never painted anything of great importance, but a few examples of his work, mostly drawings, are in the archives of the Museo Civico in Siena. Apparently he worked in a studio belonging to an artist and inventor named Lauro Sampieri.”
“I’ve never heard of either of them,” said Cassandra.
“What more do you know about them, Jake?”
“What I just told you is all there is to know about Marino. Let’s see what the net says about Sampieri.”
The bland, female voice of the computer reported: “Lauro Sampieri experimented with light and color, bringing the elements of Renaissance style, which were normally associated with the Florentine masters, to Siena. His work was cut short when he died of typhus in 1511. Some examples of his art still exist in private estates in Siena and in the Museo Civico.”
“This painting of Giuliana by Marino, however,” Jake continued, “simply doesn’t exist in the finished state we see in our dreams, other than this one by Ralph and those that other artists have tried to recreate. The reason I knew without a doubt it was by Marino though, is because of this.” He called up an image of a charcoal sketch of the forehead and eyes of a woman that almost exactly matched the dreamed painting of Giuliana. “This sketch was in the Museo Civico’s archives with the others by Marino.”
“But where’s the painting?” Cassandra asked.
“There is no painting. Francesco Marino died on July 2, 1509, probably before he could finish it.”
“How did he die?” the professor wanted to know.
“There’s no record.”
“I’m so confused.” Cassandra pressed her fingers to her temples.
“To me,” said the professor, “a collective dream on this scale could mean there are two parallel realities, one in which Marino finished the painting and one in which he didn’t. In the reality in which he completed the painting, it might be so famous we all know it like we know…the Mona Lisa, for instance. We know it so well, if it suddenly disappeared from history, it might still remain etched in our subconscious memories.”
“It’s too coincidental that this is a painting of Giuliana after she moved to Siena. If a parallel reality has occurred, it must be a result of your trip, Jake. Something you did must have changed the past to the extent that Francesco Marino died when he shouldn’t have.”
“But how, Cassie? I never knew this Marino, never even met Giuliana’s husband to be… Guerrini.” He spat the name as if it tasted bad in his mouth.
“Maybe Marino was painting Giuliana and they had an affair. Maybe Guerrini killed him out of jealousy,” Cassandra replied.
“No. Impossible. Giuliana adhered strictly to her religious edicts and to her moral code. I don’t think she would have cheated, even if she was attracted to someone else.”
“Well, it would make sense,” Carver ventured.
Jake rose and went to stand near the window. Cassandra followed his gaze to the skyline of Boston across the Charles River.
“I didn’t want her to marry Guerrini, but since she did, I’m sure she was a loyal wife.”
“Maybe you didn’t know her as well as you think,” Cassandra proposed.
“I know she would take her vows seriously, whether in a convent or in marriage.”
“Would you have preferred her to go to a convent?”
He turned and looked at her, running his hands through his thick, brown hair. “Yes.”
“Look, Jake,” the professor said in a soft voice. “I think it’s possible you awakened something in Giuliana that changed her life and that of those around her. I think your presence in her life influenced her more than we thought possible.”
“What do you mean?”
“Maybe she became discontented in her marriage because she knew something better was out there. Maybe this Francesco Marino made her remember that. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
“I suppose,” Jake murmured. “But if it was Piero Guerrini’s jealousy that led to Marino’s death, what do we do about it?”
“We’ll have to build a portal,” said Carver, “and send you back to before Marino died. You’ll have to try to find Giuliana and discover what happened. Maybe you’ll have to distract her from him, I don’t know, but if the painting disappeared from history, other things may have changed as well. Major things. People may have existed that now don’t. Family lines might have been erased.”
Jake stared at him.
“And Cassandra should go with you.”
The professor’s words slowly sifted into her consciousness. “Wait a minute.” The pitch of her voice rose, and her scalp prickled. “Why me?” The two years since she’d returned from her journey to New York City of 1853 had barely been enough time to process the danger and complications she had faced there.
“Because you need to help Jake not lose himself to Giuliana like he almost did last time.”
“I think I’m capable of controlling myself,” the younger man grumbled.
“But why should I go? We could send Suhan.”
“Suhan has never travelled. You have, and you know what you’re doing. You think quickly and have the clear head that Jake may very well need.”
“I don’t need anyone to go with me! I’m not going to get involved with Giuliana. She’s married; I respect that as much as I’m sure she does.”
“You caught the spell before, Jake. It may very well happen again,” Cassandra said, wishing she’d learn when to keep her mouth shut.
“Caught the spell?”
“The spell of the past. It’s what I call the phenomenon you and I have both experienced, as my son did when he was in England with me, and as Evie did when we were in New York. Me too, I guess.” Her cheeks again grew warm.
“Would you like a glass of water, Cassie?”
“Yes, Elton, thank you. When we become immersed in the time and place we travel to, we are particularly susceptible to becoming more involved with people then we might be if we met them in the here and now. It’s like the past casts a spell on us. We fall in love with it and with the people who cross our paths.” She took the glass and gulped the water.
“I don’t know if I agree with that theory,” said Jake.
“It’s proved true every time.”
“It didn’t happen to you when you traveled to 1920s Harlem, Elton,” Jake said to his boss.
“No.” There was hesitation in the professor’s voice. “But I was married, so I made a point to resist, but it could have.” He shook his head slightly. “Anyway, I’d just feel better if Cassie went along with you, perhaps posing as your wife.”
If Cassandra had to classify Jake in her life, she’d say he was the brother she’d never had. Pretending to be married to him? Her stomach went sour at the thought.
He was looking at her too, his face a greenish hue. “No,” he said. “My sister maybe, not my wife.”
“I just don’t think I can do it, Elton,” she said after a long exhale. “There’s got to be someone else.”
“You know, Jake was there for you when you needed him. Who was it who went back to London, back to 1820, as your scout? Who took the risk of checking out the portal exit for you to make sure it was safe? Who brought gold to open your bank account with, found a music store for you, and even a place to buy clothes?  Jake dealt with all those realtors, secured you a beautiful mansion to live in, and traveled all the way to Hampshire to make sure it would suit you. You couldn’t have made that trip if he hadn’t set it all up for you.”
“He knows how grateful I am.” Though she hated to admit it, her boss was right.
“Then do this for him.”
Another long breath. “All right.”
“Good. At any rate, both of you will be responsible for keeping each other clear of ‘the spell.’ I’ll petition the Board for their approval and once the funding is in place, we’ll look for a place to build the portal near Siena. We can probably be finished in a month; that will put it at mid-June, which will give you about three weeks before the date Francesco Marino is to have died to turn things around. We’ll send Suhan to Italy now. She’ll look for a location outside the center of Siena that perhaps was in the countryside six hundred years ago, a place to establish the wormhole connection where no one will see you when you suddenly appear out of thin air.” He grabbed the hologram out of the air and discarded it with one motion of his hand. He looked at the two scientists pointedly. “Then you go back, and you fix this.”

Chapter Two

Jacob Grenefeld, June 30, 1506—All hell has broken loose! Giuliana’s father found out about us and is raging around Firenze looking for me. Since I’d planned to leave in a few days anyway, I’ve decided to go tonight in order to spare my own hide, but I will have to do it without saying goodbye. I will disappear, and Giuliana will have no idea what happened to me. I suppose she’ll think I took the first boat back to England. 
This is what happened: one of the apprentices at da Vinci’s studio, Cesare Bianchi, saw how we looked at each other whenever Giuliana and her father, Signor De Lucca, came in to check on the progress of the painting he commissioned. In order to earn a few extra lire, I imagine, Bianchi told Giuliana’s father about his suspicions, and was paid to follow us. Well, he followed us to the oak tree, and, apparently, hiding somewhere nearby, saw us kiss. Damn him! I knew he was a rat!
I haven’t seen Giuliana since. I only know Signor De Lucca exploded because one of his servants told Maestro da Vinci’s servant, who told da Vinci. Da Vinci counseled me to hide, and when darkness fell, to flee. So, I gathered up my few materials, ran to the inn and got my things; now Maestro da Vinci is keeping me hidden in his home until I can escape tonight. He thinks I will be hiring a horse and riding to the port of Livorno. 
I am in agony, sheer and utter agony at leaving my Giuliana like this! I was almost…almost at the point of deciding to stay, or rather of going back and asking permission to stay, having the team replicate several hundred more Florins for me, returning again, and asking her father to let me marry her instead of Piero Guerrini. Now, I have no choice but to leave her with no good-byes, no explanation, not knowing what will become of her in this forced marriage she’s entering into. 
I’ve lost my head. She has to marry Guerrini. I’m an idiot for letting myself get so wrapped up in this world that is far too dangerous to consider really being a part of: just last week, I ran away from the spectacle of a man being stabbed in the middle of the Piazza della Signoria. Apparently, it was revenge for dallying with another man’s wife. What am I thinking, getting involved with a woman who is promised to another? Enough now. The sun has set. I must go, though I hate myself for slinking away like a coward. It’s just a short distance to the church of Santa Croce. Pray God I get there without being discovered or De Lucca’s hired thugs will kill me, and this journal will be left for them to read.

Cassandra set the book aside with an involuntarily shudder. It was true; the Italy they would be traveling to the next day was a treacherous time and place. She sat on the balcony of her hotel, overlooking the Campo, the famous, half-shell shaped plaza in the middle of Siena, the city she’d become so familiar with this last month as she and the team had made preparations for the trip. At the moment, the town center was the picture of serenity. The sunset was turning the sky pink and gold, and the buildings around the Campo reflected the glow of the fading sun. The beauty of the city belied its violent history.
She ran her hand across the rough stone of the balcony railing. Though only six hundred years old—young by Siena’s standards—the former palazzo must have seen its share of clashes in the Campo it overlooked.  If she simply focused on the carved stone of the balcony, she could imagine the building as the palace of a wealthy Senese family. The ornate marble lobby she passed through everyday reinforced that truth. But the moment she walked into her modern hotel room, the illusion of the ancient palazzo disappeared.
Anyway, it was more interesting to focus on the view below though it was a benign scene: tourists shuffled into cafes, and the vendors who sold hats and T-shirts in the Campo were beginning to pack up for the night.
A man with long, silver hair caught her eye before he ducked into a restaurant. There was something familiar about him, something that brought Nick to mind. This was not the time to think of that man, the man whom she thought she once loved, the man who had betrayed her when she time-traveled to New York of 1853. He had interfered in the journey, trying to be a hero, but his jealousy had driven him to do a terrible thing.
Bells rang across the plaza, pulling her thoughts back to the present. The Mangia Tower that soared above the Campo still reminded the citizens of the passing of the hours, and the town hall, or Palazzo Pubblico, from which the tower rose, presided as it had for centuries. It was good the team hadn’t built the portal here in the middle of everything. When Jake had traveled to Florence five years ago, he’d taken a huge chance being seen arriving through the portal exit in the small alleyway near Santa Croce, or leaving through it when he’d fled. If anyone had seen him, they would have thought he was some kind of sorcerer, appearing, or disappearing, into thin air. She shook her head. Back then, he’d arrived in Renaissance Florence with a large satchel of clothing, money, and supplies, and was equally lucky he’d made it to a good inn without being robbed or killed.
Cassandra and he had worked hard on perfecting their Italian in the limited preparation time, and traveled the ancient city of Siena through virtual reality tours. Gliding through those streets recreated by VR artists and historians was fun, but their accuracy was limited. When she and Jake saw the city the next day, there were sure to be many surprises. Hopefully, they could navigate the challenges they would encounter, and emerge alive, mission accomplished.


Cassandra focused on the dark green of a tree branch. The ground was suddenly firm beneath her feet, but her head still spun from the dizzying passage through time. The last thing she’d seen was the door of the wormhole chamber sliding closed, the members of the lab team disappearing from view. Now, as her vision cleared, the branch resolved into an entire grove of Cypress trees, surrounding her in a protective cluster. There was no indication this was the portal exit of the wormhole connection, the only way back to her future world.
The sound of Jake gasping for breath made her turn and look. She grabbed his hand and looked into his eyes to reassure him. He was pale, beads of sweat standing on his forehead. Church bells rang in the distance. She inhaled deeply the minty smell of the Cypress, mixed with a sweet, woody odor of olive blossoms, delivered on the warm June breeze.
“You okay?”
“Yeah,” he breathed. “I’m okay.”
She let go his hand and ran hers over the snug bodice of her deep blue muslin gown, tugging the drawstring of the scooped neckline to be sure it was tied securely. The long, puffy sleeves of the blouse flowed gracefully with the movement of her arms. She gave her long skirt and petticoats a shake and heard the jingle of the coins that were sewn into various pockets. She’d have to move carefully so others wouldn’t hear them. She adjusted the bag she carried across her shoulder and touched the simple white scarf, tied at the nape of her neck, which covered her reddish curls. Something stung on her arm: the place where Professor Carver had pinched her just before they’d stepped into the portal chamber. For luck, he’d said. How peculiar; he’d never done that before.
Jake hoisted the large satchel he was carrying onto his back. It contained a few changes of undergarments and other necessaries for them both. He also had a wealth of coins hidden about his person. The brown doublet of coarse fabric and the muslin shirt he wore over his compact and muscular frame, along with the woolen leggings and scuffed boots, gave the illusion of him being nothing more than a man of the middle class, yet certainly a worthy bodyguard for his sister. She smiled. He looked uncharacteristically fierce with his brow furrowed and an expression of stern determination on his face.
“Are you sure you’re all right?”
“Now that we’re actually here, now that the reality of it is setting in, I don’t know if I can do it. I never thought I’d be back in this time and place.”
“It’s a little late to have second thoughts, Jake.” She patted his arm, and then gave him a nudge. “Come on, we’d better get moving.”
She set her sights on the reddish-tan city perched on a hill about two kilometers away and moved toward it. Soon, they fell in with horses, wagons, and people coming and going along a rustic path. She clutched the sheathed knife in her skirt pocket.
“I wish we had a more cohesive plan,” she said, keeping her voice low. “I feel like we’re flying without a net.”
“We have a plan: find Sampieri’s studio, tell him we’re there to commission your portrait, meet Marino, find out if he and Giuliana are lovers, or may potentially become lovers,”— he clenched his jaw as he spoke—“and if so, distract them from each other. We’ll fill everything else in as we go along.”
“There are so many ‘what ifs.’ What if Marino isn’t in Siena, or Giuliana isn’t, or we can’t find them?”
“It’s a small town. Everybody knows everybody. If they’re there, we’ll find them.”
Well-laid plans could back-fire…but she kept that thought to herself. More travelers joined the road, and Cassandra couldn’t help meeting some of their stares. One man had a large, red hole in his cheek; another, a mouth covered with scabs. An old woman with a huge hooked nose scowled at her, then wondered aloud to her companion what the beautiful northern woman was doing, walking, rather than riding on horseback. Though the Senese dialect was hard to understand, Cassandra caught the gist of the remark. She glanced at the woman’s friend; she was horribly pock-marked, and the clothes she was wearing were covered in grime. The kerchief tied around her hair was little better than a rag. Perhaps she was a farmer, or a laundry woman. Perhaps she slaughtered pigs for a living. The smell that drifted toward Cassandra from her direction made it seem like a distinct possibility. When their eyes met, the woman sneered at her. Cassandra quickly looked away. Her heart beat faster.
 Soon she saw four ragtag men coming toward them, leaving Siena. Best to keep her eyes down. It was possible there could be trouble if they considered her and Jake too out of place, or too rich, or too…clean, maybe. If only they had thought to dirty themselves up a little more—that probably would have been wise. She looked at Jake. His chest was puffed out. He looked arrogant, defensive. The men drew near, and in her peripheral vision, she could tell they were looking her up and down. Her heart beat faster still. Jake took her arm and pulled her close. One of the men laughed and shouted some words in Italian. The others guffawed loudly. She understood little; something about red hair, and perhaps an obscene reference. She quickened her pace, as did Jake. The men passed them and kept going.
Thank God, they were almost to the southern gates of the walls surrounding Siena. The closer they got to them, the more prominent the stench of the city. They passed through and hurried on to the town center. They threaded their way along the cobbled steps. The smells of urine and excrement were everywhere. But suddenly the sweet smell of bread baking would give some relief, or the woman who walked by selling herbs from a cart. Even in broad daylight, some of the streets were so dark from two and three story buildings packed together, it was only possible to see a sliver of blue sky above. And Cassandra was trying to look both up and down at all times—down, to keep from stepping in puddles of filth, up, to avoid something equally horrible being dumped on her head. It wasn’t possible to examine the town yet, though undoubtedly it was fascinating. Just keep moving.
It took fifteen minutes to reach the Campo; emerging into the plaza was a chance for a deep gulp of air, not exactly free of odor, but better. There was a breeze. The sun shone, the sky opened up above her head. There was the Palazzo Pubblico and the Mangia Tower, the same as they would be in the future; but all the other buildings were so different! Those that surrounded the Campo, palazzi of some of the richest citizens, were perfectly uniform in design, creating an effect almost of one single exterior that curved in an oval around the town center. The only thing that really distinguished one from another were the turreted towers of different heights that rose from their roofs, competing for the skyline, none, however, matching the soaring Mangia Tower. It was a completely different city from the one she knew so well in the future. The virtual reality experience of ancient Siena had not been adequate preparation for the impact of all the sights, sounds, and smells.  She wished she were free to walk around the plaza and study each edifice, feel the smooth, polished stone of the buildings, wander through the center and observe the activity there: laundry being done in the Gaia Fountain, a group of men gambling with dice, a gaggle of women with their baskets gathering to gossip, children running and playing, young couples walking arm and arm, beggars, dogs, chickens—it was all so interesting! But very dangerous for an outsider.
She gestured to a sign with a carved image of a bed, just off the Campo. Maybe it was an inn. They went toward it. She let Jake open the door and enter first. She followed him into a low-ceilinged room with a brick floor and reddish mud walls. The place was empty.
“Buona sera!” Jake called.
A head covered with thick, black hair popped out from around the side of a rounded doorway. “Buona sera,” the man said, returning the greeting of good evening. His dark eyes sparkled as he quickly moved to his place behind a desk of coarse wood.
Jake asked if he had a room for himself, and one for his sister. The man responded in the affirmative.
“Di dove siete?” The innkeeper wanted to know where they were from.
“Inghilterra.” Jake let him know they were English.
“Ah, what brings you to Siena?” the innkeeper continued in Italian.
“We’re here to commission a work of art.”
“Oh!” The man looked Cassandra and Jake up and down.
“True,” Jake laughed. “We don’t look like art patrons. Our master sent us to find one Lauro Sampieri.”
The man looked at him skeptically. “Your master?”
“Yes. The man we work for. My sister and I have been in his employ since birth.”
Cassandra lowered her eyes and curtsied. Jake’s story didn’t seem plausible, but she was glad he hadn’t revealed their aliases: Count Grenefeld and Countess Barrentine. He must have thought it was better for the man not to know they were wealthy.
“I will give you the finest rooms I have. I’m sure your master must have sent you with ample funds.”
“For the basic necessities, yes. Whatever you have will be more than sufficient,” Jake responded.
“Do you mind if I ask for payment in advance? I don’t mean to be indelicate, but one cannot be too careful these days.”
“Of course.”
“The price is….” He looked up at the ceiling, calculating, no doubt, what his new guests might be able to pay. “A scudo for both rooms, per night.”
“A scudo?” questioned Jake. “That seems high.”
“Well, it is Friday and tomorrow is market day. You are lucky I still have two rooms available.”
“Perhaps we should look elsewhere,” Cassandra said in Italian.
Jake responded in English. “It’s getting late and we may not find something else. I think we should take it. It’s not like we don’t have the money.”
“I know. I was playing the game.”
“Let’s agree on this.” The innkeeper jumped in. “If you stay through the Sabbath, I will charge you only half price for that night. You will not find a better deal in Siena for rooms of my quality. And if you stay longer, I will better the bargain.”
“If the rooms are as nice as you say,” Jake said, “we might stay indefinitely—until we finish the transaction for our master. I hope you will give us the best price possible in that case.”
“Certainly, signore, certainly. For now, the price of the three nights in advance? Two scudi, two quattrini. An excellent deal.”
“Very well.”
Jake extracted a small purse from one of his pockets and fished around, selecting the coins. The innkeeper craned his neck to see into the purse, but Cassandra glared at him and he withdrew sheepishly. Jake laid the coins on the desk and the Italian scooped them up.
“One other thing, signore,” Jake said to the man.
“Anything, good sir, tell me.”
“The commission from my master. Can you tell us where we can find this Lauro Sampieri?”
“Oh yes, everyone knows of his studio,” the innkeeper declared. “It is not far from here. You take the first street that leads north from the Palazzo Pubblico, Via Rinaldini, cross Via Banchi di Sotto and make a slight right onto Via San Vigilio. Then turn left at Via Cecco Angiolieri. Continue a few steps until you see a large iron gate on your right. A sign is above the gate. You will see the artists working within.”
Cassandra’s would have no trouble remembering. Her memory was excellent for names and directions.
“Thank you. You have been most helpful,” Jake said.
The innkeeper jingled the coins in his hand.
“Oh.” Jake reached into the purse again, pulled out a smaller coin, and examined it.
It was obvious he didn’t know what amount was expected. They were both going to have to learn more about what things cost. But the man smiled happily as he plucked the coin from between Jake’s fingers.
He led them up a wooden staircase and opened a door for Cassandra, then continued down the hall, keys clinking. Jake remained in the room with her. The floors were of rough-hewn beams, the walls were smooth, red plaster. A wooden, four-poster bed stood in the center. She pushed at the coarse linen sheets that enclosed a straw mattress. Reaching into her pocket, she drew out a packet of white powder, and blew it into the air.
“Good idea,” said Jake. “That straw is probably crawling with bugs.”
She shivered. “This stuff has never failed me.”
“Signore!” the innkeeper called, “come see your fine room.”
“Meet me downstairs for dinner,” Jake said as he left.

After they had eaten a simple meal of bread, cheese, ham, olives, and fruit in the main room of the inn, Cassandra and Jake retired. In her room, she removed her bodice, outer skirt, and petticoat, and laid them over the end of the bed. The long-sleeved chemise and bloomers she left on would do to sleep in. In the dim light from the late-setting sun, she grasped the ceramic pitcher of water she’d requested and poured it into a basin on the bedside table. She drew her toothbrush from her satchel, an entirely convincing replica of a wooden, horsehair teeth cleaning tool of the Renaissance era. She uncorked a jar of toothpowder, dipped the tip of the tool in, brushed, and spit into the chamber pot. She next fished a small, clay pot from the bag, uncorked it, and dipped two fingers in. The grey lumps that would pass for soap to a person of the 1500s melted between her fingertips into her favorite cleanser. Saying a silent thank you to the brilliant chemists who had concocted it especially for her, she washed her face. Then, from another corked jar, she dipped out a fingerful of white cream and spread it gently over her skin. She inhaled deeply as she felt it soak in; it was thanks to this stuff she still looked so young. Replacing the jar in her bag, her hand knocked against a small glass bottle that contained a potent sleep elixir. Should she use it tonight? No, better not to sleep too soundly. She crawled into bed. The straw crunched as she moved into position under the quilt, and poked her through the sheets. She lay still, holding her breath, anticipating a nip from some revolting insect, yet it seemed the powder had done its job.
There was no glass in the windows to hamper a cool breeze from blowing in over her face, carrying with it an odor of dung and rotten garbage. She lay there for what seemed like a long time. A loud snorting sound came from somewhere outside. What on earth! She got up and tiptoed to the window. It was just possible to make out the large shapes of pigs eating the trash off the ground of the Campo. She crept back to bed and closed her eyes. The bells of the city seemed to toll continually, even long after sunset. It was difficult to count the actual hours. There, that one was telling the time: one, two, three. Three o’clock? No. She had to count the time from one at the hour of sunset, which had to have been about eight o’clock. Therefore, three tolls of the hour would make it eleven o’clock to her modern way of telling time. How would she sleep though, with the constant ringing?
She opened her eyes again. Maybe she should record the day’s events in her travel journal. No, it was more important to sleep. Tomorrow they would go find Sampieri and perhaps from him, learn about Giuliana and the artist Francesco Marino. Maybe Jake was right. Things were already falling into place.
A key jiggled in the lock of her door and she sat bolt upright. She felt around on the bedside table for her knife, grabbed it, and sprang out from between the sheets. Heart pounding, she crept to the door. A glint of metal told her the key was still in the lock, where she’d left it. Suddenly, it dropped out onto the floor at her feet with a tinny clank. The jiggling stopped. Whoever it was out there, she sensed them waiting, could almost hear them breathing.  She moved behind the door. There was no way to block their entry now. After another few moments, the jiggling of the lock resumed. It clicked, and then the door creaked open. There was no light from hallway, nor moonlight from the window, to give her a hint of the person’s identity.
The intruder stepped inside. What did he want, money or sex? As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she recognized the curly head of the innkeeper. He made his way toward the bed, but stopped just short of it. He gently reached out and patted the mattress, feeling his way around. As he reached out to touch her clothes, she sprang toward him, knife held at the ready.
“What do you want?” she managed in Italian.
He stumbled backward. “N-nothing! Just….”
“Get the hell out of my room!” Did her words convey the right meaning?
“No, no! I’m not going to hurt you.” He held his arms open to show he had no weapon. “Please, signora!” He raised his arms, then struck out and grabbed her wrist, twisting it. She screamed and the knife fell to the floor.
“Now!” he growled, holding both her arms tight. “You choose, your money or your virtue. You and that brother of yours must have more silver stashed somewhere.”
“All right! But you have to let me get it. It’s hidden.”
“Fine.” He wrenched one arm behind her, freeing the other.
She reached for her skirt at the end of the bed, then jutted her leg backward and stamped on the instep of his foot.
“Aahhh!” He screamed, and cursed in Italian.
She hurled her best vindictive at him while she kicked him in the groin. He collapsed on the ground, and she grabbed her knife.
“Now, you son-of-a-bitch, get the hell out of here!” She kicked at his backside, but he grabbed her foot, and she lost her balance. She fell to the floor. He rolled over her and pinned her down, but she still had hold of the knife.
“Now you’ll get it!” He let go of one of her hands to strike her.
She slashed her nails across his face before his hand could make contact. As he screamed and let her go, she jabbed the knife into his stomach. It sank into his fat belly. He howled in pain.
The door burst open and Jake ran in. “Cassie!” He grabbed the innkeeper by the hair. “Get out, you filthy pig!” He heaved him into the hallway, where his head smashed into the wall.
Was he dead? Had she killed him? He began to moan. Slowly, he crawled down the stairs.
“Oh my God, Jake!” She fell into his arms.
“Are you all right?” He held her close, stroking her hair.
“Yes, yes. What are we going to do? Do you think he’s going to die?”
“What difference does it make? It’s not like anyone’s going to report it to the police—they don’t even exist as such. Besides, you’re the one who was attacked.”
“What should we do? Where will we go? It’s the middle of the night.”
“Come to my room.”
She grabbed her things and they scurried to his room. In the hallway, she thought she saw a door open a crack, then quickly close. Once he and Cassandra were inside, Jake shut the door and began pushing furniture against it.
“Jake, I don’t want to stay here!”
“We have no choice. It’s even more dangerous to go out into the night at this hour. Help me.” They dragged the heavy bed into the other furniture against the door.
“No one’s getting in now.”
“What if he sends someone to get us?” Her mind reeled with all the terrible possibilities.
“I don’t think that’s going to happen. He’s badly injured. We have no choice but to stay.”
“I’ll never sleep, never!”
“Come on, get into bed. You don’t have to worry, I’ll keep watch.”
“I can’t sleep. There’s no way.”
“Okay, just crawl in here and lie down.”
She did as he instructed, rubbing the sore places on her arms.
He rummaged in his bag, and then came to her side. “Shhh,” he said, stroking her head. Something cool and wet touched her wrist.
“Jake, is that the sleep potion?”
“Yes, but don’t worry, I’ll stay awake. You need to sleep.”
“Jake, no!” But it was too late, she was getting drowsy already. Her lids began to close. “No, I have to stay awake….”

Chapter Three

The next thing Cassandra knew, sunlight was streaming in through the window. She sat up with a start. Jake was sleeping next to her. The sounds of the Campo coming alive with people and animals floated through the window.
“Jake.” She shook him.
“What?” His eyes flew open.
“We’ve got to get out of here.”
“Yes, let’s go.”
They jumped out of bed and quickly dressed. They pushed the furniture out of the way and grabbed their bags. Jake opened the door to peer out. “No one’s there,” he said.
They drew their knives and crept down the stairs. When they got to the bottom, Jake held his arm out to block her. The innkeeper was hunched in a chair, his eyes closed. There was blood on the front of his tunic, but not a lot. They stared at him a moment. His chest rose and fell and a grunt escaped his lips. He was alive. They crept out the front door and into the street.
It was market day on the Campo. Carts, booths, and stands of every description crowded into the enormous space, each vendor vying for the attention of housewives, cooks, and itinerant merchants. Young men gathered around the gambling booths, and their owners beckoned to Jake as he and Cassandra passed. Food sellers called out to them too, while the travelers made their way across the plaza, but Cassandra had no appetite. Smells of decaying meat, overripe fruits and vegetables, unwashed human bodies, and animal waste filled the air.
Once past the Campo, they continued to the northern third of the city, into the maze of winding, narrow streets, trying to follow that bastard of an innkeeper’s directions. A group of small barefoot boys ran past them and hurled some kind of rude remark at Cassandra that she found unintelligible. She lifted her skirts high to avoid the puddles of urine—human or animal? Yet the rounded doorways and carved balconies along the street were too beautiful to ignore this morning, and the fascinating brick work of the buildings and cobbled roads began to take her mind off the terrible events of the night before.
Eventually they came to iron gates, open to the streets, over which a sign hung with the words PITTORE SAMPIERI E SCUOLA (School of Painter Sampieri, Cassandra roughly translated) masterfully carved alongside a painted image of an easel, a paintbrush, a hammer, and a chisel.  Through the entry way, she spied a large, paved patio, busy with working artists.
“This is it,” said Jake.
Some artists were painting, others sculpting. Some—mixing colors, cleaning, or watching their masters work—had to be apprentices. Cassandra took a deep breath. As she and Jake entered, the artists looked up one by one and stopped what they were doing.
A man approached them, paint splotches and marble dust covering his clothing. He walked with confidence, and when he smiled, he exposed a set of straight teeth.
“Buon giorno!” He greeted them.  He continued in his language, “What can I do for you this morning?”
“We are looking for Maestro Sampieri,” Jake replied.
“I am he, at your service.” He bowed low with a sweeping gesture of his right arm. When he straightened, he looked directly at Cassandra and smiled. His shoulder-length dark hair was peppered with gray, and he had large dark brown eyes. Full lips, high cheekbones, and a straight nose complemented a firm jaw and muscular neck. He wasn’t tall, nor very short. He had broad shoulders and powerful looking arms under the full sleeves of his shirt. His face was tanned, with lines around the eyes.
“And who is asking?” His speech was clear and easy to understand.
“I am Count Jacopo Grenefeld of England, and this is my sister, the Contessa.”
“Exquisite!” Sampieri whispered.
Cassandra dropped into a curtsey, eyes downcast.
“If you don’t mind me saying so,” the artist continued, “you do not dress like aristocracy.”
“We are trying not to attract attention,” Jake confided.
“Well, you are failing miserably,” the Italian said and laughed.
“Truthfully,” replied Jake, “these clothes are just for traveling. What we need to find is a place to stay, fitting to our rank, and a tailor. We came with almost no clothing and no luggage, in order to avoid thieves. As it is, my sister underwent a terrible ordeal last night when the keeper of the inn we stayed at attacked her and tried to rob her. God knows what he might have done had it not been for her quickness, bravery, and skill with a knife.”
“Brava, signorina!” Sampieri cried.
“Signora.” Cassandra quietly corrected him.
 “Scusi,” said Sampieri, bowing low.
Cassandra nodded.
“My sister was recently widowed,” Jake said.
“Mi dispiace.”
She bowed her head at his expression of sympathy.
“Are you well now after your ordeal, signora? May I offer you breakfast?”
“No, but thank you so much.” Her stomach was still a jumble.
“Thank you for your concern, Maestro,” Jake continued. “But what brings us to Siena is to commission a painting.”
“Not Florence? Everyone goes to Florence these days!” Sampieri said with an edge of bitterness to his voice.
“In my travels to this region in the past,” said Jake, “I studied the art of both cities and prefer the style of the Senese school.”
It was a necessary lie. Cassandra would have done the same.
“You pay me a great compliment since I consider myself the innovator of our modern style. Siena has a history of many great artists from the previous century. You share the first name of one of our most renowned, Jacopo—”
“…Della Quercia!” said Jake with a laugh.
“Ah, you do know the art of our city!”
“Of course,” said Jake with a nod and a smile.
“But what we do in this studio is try to move beyond that tradition, to do something more realistic, and not always religiously based or necessarily paying tribute to the classic Roman and Greek traditions as they do so much these days in Florence.”
“You refer to the young Michelangelo Buonarroti.”
“And Maestro Donatello.”
“I was privileged to see their Davids. But Michelangelo’s is….”
“Perfection,” Cassandra breathed.
Sampieri looked at her with eyebrows raised. “I agree. We strive to develop that level of greatness here in Siena as well. We will not let the Florentines outdo us!”
Cassandra merely nodded. Though producing much beautiful art, Siena would never reach the heights Florence did during the Renaissance.
“Do you mind if we look around your studio at the artists working here? Or perhaps you would be willing to take on the commission yourself. It is to be a portrait of my sister,” said Jake.
“I mostly work in fresco, but I will show you examples of my portraiture. I may be willing to offer my talents if you approve of my work. But first, I want you to take a look at what my artists are capable of. I will not push myself in front of them if you prefer their style over mine.”
“Yes,” said Jake, “please introduce us to your artists. We would like to see what kind of work your people are doing here. However, if you are available to do the portrait, Maestro, we would be honored. And I believe we can pay whatever you wish.”
“Come, you can choose for yourself,” the maestro said.
As the man turned away from them, Cassandra caught Jake by the arm and mouthed, “What about Francesco Marino?”
Jake shrugged and whispered back, “We’ll see.”
They followed Sampieri around the garden, and as they did, the artists returned to their work, though Cassandra caught more than one glancing at her furtively. Sampieri introduced the foreigners to the painters and sculptors alike.  One artist was working on a small statue of a horse. The detail of the muscles was extraordinary, as was that of the delicate hair of the mane and tail. Equally impressive was the sensitivity portrayed in the creature’s eyes. Another man was completing a still-life painting of fruit on a platter: not an original subject, but he seemed to be perfecting the technique of chiaroscuro…what was the exact translation? Oh yes, light/dark. Artists she loved, from Fra Angelico to da Vinci to Rembrandt, had all used it.
“And this is Signor Marino!” Sampieri said with a flourish of his arm.
He stopped next to a slim young man with wavy, light brown hair and equally light eyes that were almost golden. Marino rose and greeted Jake and Cassandra. He was so tall, and so handsome! She made a conscious effort to keep her mouth from dropping open.
Jake didn’t seem to be as successful. “Piacere…a pleasure.” His face was flushed red.
“I would offer you his services, for, as you can see, his work is exceptional.”
He appeared to be putting the finishing touches on a small painting of a serene Madonna and child. It was so lovely; it had the effect of soothing Cassandra’s rattled nerves.
“But he is about to start on a portrait of Giuliana De Lucca Guerrini, wife of one of Siena’s most distinguished citizens, and so he will not be available to take on another commission right away.”
“Of course, we understand,” Jake stammered.
Sampieri led them into a building with a high ceiling, tall, airy windows, and smooth, rose-colored walls. The hard-packed dirt floor was scattered with straw. At one end of the room was a large sculpture, still in armature phase—clay packed onto wire—of a male figure. Cassandra followed the men past tables scattered with smaller sculptures still in progress, a desk on which sculpting tools were neatly organized, and another table where two apprentices were bent over pots of color, mixing with great concentration. They didn’t look up as the visitors passed, but when she glanced back, they were staring. When caught, they immediately looked down at their work. Trying to suppress a smile, her gaze drifted out the wide doorway at Marino in the yard, still looking in her direction.
“I only have sketches here,” Sampieri said.
Her attention snapped back to him.
“…since the finished portraits are with their owners. However, I could arrange for you see to them if you wish.”
He went to a basket where parchments were rolled up, chose one, and unfurled it. It was a sketch of a woman in profile with soft eyes, a straight nose, thin lips and wavy long hair. Jake gave the appropriate response; it was not Cassandra’s place to enter into the discussion though the portrait was to be of her. Sampieri next withdrew a sketch of an old man, a clear expression of contempt written across his face; the next, a young man, thin and drawn, perhaps not far from death. The fourth was of an older, dour-looking woman, and the last three were of younger women, one very beautiful, another with an odd, turned up nose, but large, attractive eyes. The last was plump, with considerable cleavage and a mischievous grin on her face. Their eyes seemed to reflect a particularly flirtatious glint. Perhaps it was the artist’s charm that drew the expression forth.
“Maestro, your work speaks for itself. We could not be more honored if you could find the time to do the portrait of my sister. Do you agree, Cassandra?”
“Yes, of course.”
“And we would like to pay you in advance,” said Jake.
“All of it? But it is not customary,” Sampieri replied. “Why don’t you wait and pay me the final half when you decide if you’re pleased with the picture?”
“I have no doubt we will be,” said Jake, “so why wait?” He reached into his satchel and pulled out a small velvet bag. He counted ten gold Florins into Sampieri’s hand.
“Is that price acceptable?”
It was the equivalent of about three thousand modern dollars. Cassandra coughed into her hand.
The artist bowed low. “More than adequate. I am honored to be in your service, Count Grenefeld. And as a token of friendship, I invite you to stay in my humble home while we complete the portrait. It is very simple, I assure you, but you and your sister will each have your own bedchamber and you can make use of my library, my instruments, my gardens, and whatever else suits your fancy. In short, my home will be yours.”
It didn’t sound as if the man’s home were the least bit “humble.”
“No,” said Jake. “You are too kind. We could not impose.”
“Please, you would be doing me a vast honor. My house is too quiet now. My darling wife passed a few years ago, and my two daughters were recently married. I have only my servants and whatever guests will tolerate me long enough to stay and keep me company. At the moment, there is no one. Please, come keep a lonely man company.”
Cassandra’s eyes met his. They were serious. Her trust in him was instinctive.
“Very well,” Jake assented.
“And I shall introduce you to the finest tailor and dressmaker in the city. In the meantime, Conte, you and I are not so different in size, and, Contessa, you will likely fit into the gowns that I still keep of my Teresa.”
Cassandra again dropped into a curtsey.
Sampieri beckoned to the two apprentices. He called one Carlo, a large, muscular young man with a muddy complexion and the beginnings of a hump on his back. The other was Giovanni, an attractive youth, with a classic roman nose, deep brown eyes with long lashes, full lips, and a thick head of chestnut hair. He grinned openly at Cassandra. Sampieri instructed them to escort his guests to the villa.
“And please,” the artist said, “take some cherries for your walk. You must be famished.” He handed Jake a cloth sack full of the fruit. The “count” bowed his thanks.
The travelers went arm in arm, following the apprentices, having been told to expect about a half an hour’s walk, the house being situated some distance beyond the city walls. As soon as they were past the northern gates of Siena, the air began to blow fresh. The scent of olive blooms returned. They continued along a dirt road, up a slight hill lined with jasmine bushes, speaking little. A dizzy feeling made Cassandra hold onto Jake’s arm firmly. He took her hand, squeezed it, and smiled at her. There was a look in his eyes that could have been fear, or maybe just excitement. He held out the cherries and they ate them as they walked. The sunshine, the sweet fruit, and the clean air made her feel better. Their plan seemed to be falling into place. And Sampieri. He was the picture of what she’d imagined a Renaissance gentleman would be: charismatic, gallant, intelligent. What a wonderful turn of events that would have them being guests in his home!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Nerd-Girl of the Year, 2012 - First Annual Award

Each January from now on I will choose my favorite nerd-girl of the previous year. What makes the perfect nerd-girl in my mind? First, she should be successful in her nerdiness, not some sad goth queen living in her parents' basement or the go-to wench at a Renaissance fair. She shouldn't  let her love of things nerdy get in the way of being attractive, though that shouldn't be her first priority, and her nerd-look could be anything from bookish to out-there. She should be a stand out in her nerdly field, be it comic book designer, librarian, or Shakespearean actress. And she should be a model for other nerd-girls.

Therefore, after much contemplation, I have chosen as Nerd-Girl of 2012: Tina Fey.
Ms. Fey is a nerd-girl on many levels: actress, (having been one myself for many years I know they are among the nerdiest of all people), writer (enough said) and comedienne (almost all female comedians are ultra-nerdy). A self-professed "Super Nerd," her character on 30 Rock, Liz Lemon, is nerdiness personified.

After honing her craft at Second City in Chicago, a rite of passage for many great comedians, Tina became a writer on Saturday Night Live, ultimately moving up to head writer, performer, and star of Weekend Update. She went on to write and act in films, and created 30 Rock, hands down my favorite comedy show on TV. I'm heart-broken it's coming to an end. She's won boatloads of Emmys and SAG Awards, even a Grammy, and was the youngest recipient ever of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.She and Amy Poehler were glorious on the Golden Globes this year, and the two of them were just named ABC News's Persons of the Week, though I'm not sure Diane Sawyer would recognize a nerd if she saw one (perhaps her husband Mike Nichols qualifies).

One of Fey's greatest achievements is that she was, in my opinion, almost single-handedly responsible for winning the 2008 election for Barack Obama. With her uncanny portrayal of Sarah Palin, she showed voters what a true debacle that situation was; especially young voters, who may not have been interested otherwise.

Tina Fey as Sarah Palin
Is she a nerd-girl in the same ways I am? I'm not sure - I'm pretty sure she doesn't write time-travel novels. But then, nerds don't always agree on what makes them nerdy. Yet a nerd, especially a nerd-girl, has a certain undefinable something that Tina definitely has, and which has caused me, after much careful consideration, to choose her as my first Nerd-Girl of the Year. I hope she will accept this honor with due humility. If she decides she wants a plaque, I'll put it in the mail.