Sovereign Silk(9)

By: Elizabeth Gilligan

“Who is he, Caserta?” the one named diSotto demanded, one hand still clenching the hilt of his sword.

Caserta smiled beneficently at Don Cristoval Battista, but frowned as he turned to address the befouled rider. “He is our guest, diSotto, and what business brings you to me with such a . . .” here he paused to nod dismissively at the gathering audience, “noteworthy entrance?”

“I have important news, Padre—” diSotto said.

“News, hmm . . . and, gentlemen, may I ask both of you to use a little more . . . discretion with our affiliations? Come inside, please. You can share your news and perhaps change into something else whilst a washerwoman has a go at your clothes. As to our guest, I bid you leave such matters to me. There is nothing that you will report that will not be told to him as messenger to our patron.”

That, Cristoval realized, was an invitation, or at least all that he was likely to receive. After a reluctant pause, he followed the erstwhile priest and his messenger into le Armi Dorata, an establishment of questionable merit, certainly not a place that a gentleman would like to be seen in. Yet, despite its name and reputation, the front doors opened upon a salon with liveried servants. Two, precisely. By the color of their skin, Cristoval surmised they were young men of African heritage. Someone here apparently felt no compunctions about flouting Tyrrhia’s antislavery laws and took advantage of the slave markets popular in other parts of the world. Of course, Cristoval realized, he made assumptions. The men could easily be free and getting what employment they could.

The salon itself was small. Light and shadow merged to maximum effect for privacy with three sets of heavy emerald velvet curtains that divided the areas to the left and right into discreet alcoves. One of the shadows apparently led to some sort of common room as the murmur of men’s voices could just be heard, but not distinguished.

“We will be in our rooms,” the priest said to the servants. “Send the laundress.”

The liveried youths came forward silently; one pulled back a curtain to reveal a door to the left and stairs directly before them while the other young man took their coats. DiSotto refused, apparently choosing to keep his filthy coat for the laundress Caserta spoke of.

Cristoval ignored the insolent diSotto and quickly followed Caserta up the uncarpeted wooden stairs. At a landing, the stairway branched toward hallways deeper into the building. Caserta took the right and continued to a second-floor landing.

For an unimposing front, the establishment of le Armi Dorata—the Gilded Arms—proved to be surprisingly large, the building reaching higher and deeper into the street quarter than Cristoval might have expected.

Caserta led both men to a door at the end of the hall and bent to unlock it. Beyond, Cristoval found a sizable parlor furnished with a large table and chairs to one side and something akin to a sitting room with more chairs of various types and sturdiness gathered around a fireplace. From this room, four doors opened to bedrooms in a variety of states of orderliness.

DiSotto moved to the fireplace, sending disdainful glares in Cristoval’s direction. Caserta took three goblets—he raised them to the light cast from the windows. With a frown, Caserta tipped the glassware out onto the tray and refilled each with a dark wine. He handed one to Cristoval, another to diSotto, and kept the third for himself.

“I cannot say that this offering is anything akin to the wine of your vineyard, Don Battista,” Caserta said. “While we came virtually unannounced, you threw open your house. I have not forgotten your hospitality . . . or your new allegiance to our cause. You are sent by His Highness, Prince Pierro deMedici? Is there news?”

Cristoval swallowed his distaste at thought of his employer and sipped at the wine, raising the glass to his host perfunctorily. “He has shared little with me, but wished to—to—establish our connection. He intends that I should come weekly for exchanges.”

“Ah,” Caserta nodded. He motioned for Cristoval to sit in one of the rough spindle-backed chairs that bore little resemblance to those in the palazzo, even those that had been relegated to servants’ quarters—where he now resided with his son and former housekeeper. “What news is there from the palazzo? Is it true the queen expects twins?”