1636 The Flight Of The Nightingale – Snippet 02
Sabatini turned back to the table and blew out the candle, then moved to the window. He pushed open the shutters, thankful that they had thought to apply some olive oil to the shutter hinges the same day they had oiled the kitchen door. They opened silently because of that. He reached down and picked up the wineskin and hefted it through the window, setting it on top of the rosebush that sat just to the left of the window opening. Then he sat down on the window ledge, swung his legs up and through the opening, and dropped off it to the ground, ducking his head as he did so to clear the top of the window frame. It was a superior apartment — ground floor, at that — in the Palazzo Pitti, one of the major residences of the Medici family in Firenze, but still was for one who was considered — mostly, even after her marriage to Raffaelli — a servant, after all, he thought. The window accordingly wasn’t very large. Francesca had been promised a glass casement in the window for the last several years, but somehow the palace major never seemed to find the monies in his budget to make it happen.
He brought the two shutter leaves close together, ready to shut them, but before he did he checked to make sure the thread he had run in the late afternoon around the latch arm on the left shutter was still in place running up and over the top of the shutter. It was there, so he closed the shutters, pulling slightly on the thread ends to lift the latch arm. It took a couple of tries before he heard the click as the latch arm settled in place.
A quick pull on the shutters confirmed that they were properly latched. Sabatini pulled one end of the thread until it was all free of the shutter, winding it into a small ball which he tucked into a pocket. One never knew when a nice long piece of thread might be handy, after all.
Picking up the wineskin, Sabatini headed around the perimeter of the courtyard toward the loggia. He didn’t want to keep Francesca waiting. Their plan was pretty tightly scheduled.
Francesca stepped out as a shadow moved by the loggia pillars. She was tense, but relaxed when the light from a nearby torch flickered over Sabatini’s face.
“Any problems?” she whispered.
“After all the practices? No.” Sabatini’s voice was just as hushed. “You?”
“Didn’t see or hear anyone,” she replied.
“But did anyone see or hear you?”
They looked back down the loggia, then toward the gate that was their goal.
Francesca took a big sigh. She reached up and folded her hood back, revealing her face, her put up hair, and the dangling earrings that swayed as she moved her head. Sabatini held up the wineskin, and Francesca took it. “Time for the next step, I suppose.”
Sabatini said nothing, simply faded back into the shadows. Francesca took another deep breath, then headed for the gate.
The guards tonight were Giuseppe and Ercole, two of the regulars who usually had the night shift on Martedì. They were rascals, at best, whose accents and remarks indicated they were not from Firenze originally. Francesca thought they were from one of the northern regions.
They also just happened to be the two guards who had the most regular arrangements with those who supplied certain comforts to members of the court without necessarily going through the proper channels for import duties due the city and state of Firenze in the person of Grand Duke Cosimo.
Francesca was an occasional client of one of their suppliers, so she knew the two guards, and they knew her. More importantly, they knew her as a customer, not an interloper. That was important.
“Maestra Caccini,” Giuseppe called out when she stepped into the pools of light cast by their lanterns. “Are you expecting someone? We hadn’t heard.”
“No, no,” Francesca replied. Her short laugh sounded a bit forced to her, but neither of the guards seemed to notice anything. “Or, not exactly. Benito sent me word that he might have something small for me tonight or tomorrow, so I thought I’d stop and see.”
“No, Maestra,” Ercole said. As usual, Francesca had to bite her lip to keep from laughing at the thin reedy tones his voice produced. If ever a man could say that he was cursed by his name, it was Ercole. Francesca had never met anyone who looked less like a Hercules than Ercole; thin, bony, round-shouldered, long-necked, jug-eared, and above all, short. It made him the inevitable butt of rough jokes from his fellow guards, but from what Francesca had seen, he kept a good humor about it, and gave as good as he got.
“No, we have not seen Benito tonight,” Ercole continued without realizing her thoughts. He looked at his partner. “And we hadn’t heard that he planned on coming by any time this week.” Giuseppe nodded in agreement.
“Ah, well, I must have misunderstood, then. Do let me know if you hear from him.”
“Certainly, Maestra,” Giuseppe said. “We certainly will.”
The guards were on their best behavior. Francesca was well aware of the fact that if she had been a simple serving woman or kitchen worker, their attitudes would have been considerably more casual and would have involved physical contact. Even though the Grand Duchess was now dowager and no longer the regent over the duchy, she still had a great deal of power and authority behind the scenes, and a certain amount of protection flowed from her to cover Francesca. It would take rank and standing much higher than these men would ever possess to counteract that. Which didn’t mean that there weren’t those in the court who might try. A knot in her stomach reminded her of that fact.
Francesca looked down almost as if surprised, and lifted the wineskin that she was holding. “I believe I promised you good men some wine a couple of weeks ago. Sorry it took me so long, but I do keep my promises. This is yours.”
“Madonna bless you, Maestra!” Ercole exclaimed as Giuseppe reached out greedy hands for the wine. “We were late to supper, and all they had left to drink was some really sour beer. We are dry as a desert, standing here.”
Francesca laughed and handed the wineskin to Giuseppe, who popped the stopper out of the neck of the skin and lifted it up to pour wine into his open mouth with a very practiced motion. After a moment, Ercole reached up and pulled his arm down. “Pig! Swine! Glutton! You will not swill it down before I get my share.”
Giuseppe coughed, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, and surrendered the skin to his partner. “Delizioso, Maestra! Very fine, very sweet, the blessings of all the saints upon you for remembering poor Giuseppe and poor Ercole standing lonely watch in the middle of the night.”
There followed bows, first by one of them, then by the other, then by both together, until Francesca held up her hands laughing, saying, “Enough, enough. You like it, that’s good. Just keep an eye out for Benito, all right?”
“Si, Maestra,” Ercole said as Giuseppe snagged the wineskin again. “We will certainly do that. Give me that,” he snarled at his partner the next moment, grabbing for the skin.
Francesca turned and retreated into the shadows again, moving back to where she had left Sabatini. When she heard his “Psst,” she stepped sideways into the darker pool of shadows around one of the loggia columns, pulling her hood back up over her head to help shade the lighter skin of her face.