Two gentlemen of Siena stared down at a stinking corpse that had been flung over the wall at the Camollia gate.
‘Is it a horse?’ asked the younger, for the body was so decomposed it was hard to tell.
‘No, it’s a donkey,’ answered his elder.
‘Hmm.’ The youth was thoughtful. ‘Whatever can it mean?’
‘Well,’ said the other, who was pleased to be asked, and whose air of the greybeard who knew it all did not endear him to his friends, ‘in 1230 the Florentines who besieged Siena used to throw the corpses of donkeys over the city walls. They hoped the carcasses would bring pestilence and plague.’
The youth pulled his neckerchief swiftly over his noseand mouth. ‘Jesu. D’you think this one is diseased? It stinks enough.’
‘Dio. It’s not the olden days. Someone’s ass died and they dumped it. No more, no less.’
His companion craned upwards and stroked the beard that he one day wished to have. ‘I don’t know. Look; there’s some blood and skin on the top of the gate. This fellow was thrown over. Should we tell someone?’
‘Well, I don’t know. . . the duchess? The council, then? Or the Watch?’
The older man turned towards his young companion.
He had never known the lad to question with him and felt justified in hardening his tone just a little.
‘The Watch?’ he scoffed. ‘On the eve of the Palio? D’you not think they might have better things to worry about than a dead donkey?’
The boy hung his head. He supposed he was right. It was the Palio tomorrow and the whole city was a ferment of excitement, a ferment that sometimes bubbled over into violence. Nevertheless, he walked backwards for a little until he could no longer see the grisly heap. Intensely superstitious, like all Sienese, he could not help thinking that the donkey was an ill omen for the city. Uneasy little thoughts gathered round his head like the flies that rose from the corpse.
For her nineteenth birthday, Pia Tolomei, the most beautiful woman in Siena, was given a necklace and a husband.
Her name-day was spent sitting quietly in her chamber, a day like any other – the same, the same, the same. But then Pia’s maid told her that her father wished to see her and she knew exactly what was coming. She’d been awaiting this moment since she was eleven.
She laid down her hoop of embroidery with a shaking hand and went down to the piano nobile at once. Her knees shook too as they carried her slight and upright form down the stair, but she had courage. She knew it was time to face what she had dreaded for years, for as long as she had been old enough to understand the expediencies of the marriage market.
For eight years Pia had expected, daily, to be parcelled up and handed in marriage to some young sprig of Sienese nobility. But fate had kept her free until now. Pia knew that her father would not marry her beyond her ward, the contrada of the Civetta, the Owlet. And here she had been fortunate, for the male heirs of the good Civetta families were few. A boy that she was betrothed to in the cradle had died of the water fever. Another had gone to the wars and married abroad. The only other heir she could think of had just turned fifteen. She had a notion her father had been waiting for this lad to reach his majority. She went downstairs now, fully expecting that she was about to be shackled to a child.
In the great chamber her father Salvatore Tolomei stood in a shaft of golden light streaming in through the windows. He had always had an instinct for the theatrical. He waited until she approached him and laid her cool kiss upon his cheek, before he pulled a glittering gold chain from his sleeve with a magician’s flourish. He laid it in her palm where it curled like a little serpent and she saw that there was a roundel, or pendant, hanging from it.
‘Look close,’ Salvatore said.
Pia obeyed, humouring him, masking the impatience she felt rising within her. She saw a woman’s head depicted on a gold disc, decapitated and floating.
‘It is Queen Cleopatra herself,’ whispered Salvatore with awe, ‘on one of her own Egyptian coins. It is more than a thousand years old.’
His ample form seemed to swell even further with pride. Pia sighed inwardly. She had grown up being told, almost daily, that the ancestors of the Tolomei were Egyptian royalty, the
Ptolemy. Salvatore Tolomei – and all the Civetta capitani before him – never stopped telling people of the famous Queen Cleopatra from whom he was directly descended.
Pia felt the great weight of her heritage pressing down on her and looked at the long-dead queen almost with pity. That her long, illustrious royal line should distil itself down into Pia, the Owlet, daughter and heir to the house of the Owls! Pia was queen of nothing but the Civetta contrada, sovereign of a quiet
ward in the north of Siena, regent of a collection of ancient courtyards and empress of a company of shoemakers.
‘And on the other side?’
Pia turned the coin over and saw a little owl in gold relief.
‘Our own emblem, and hers; the emblem of Minerva, of Aphrodite, of Civetta.’
She looked up at her father, waiting for the meat of the matter. She knew he never gave without expectation of return.
‘It is a gift for your name-day, but also a dowry,’ said he. ‘I have spoken with Faustino Caprimulgo of the Eagle contrada. His son, Vicenzo, will take you in marriage.’
Pia closed her hand tight around the coin until it bit. She felt a white-hot flame of anger thrill through her. She had not, of course, expected to choose her own husband, but she had hoped in her alliance with the Chigi boy that she could school him a little, to become the most that she could wish for in a husband; to treat her with kindness and leave her alone. How could her father do this? She had always, always done as Salvatore asked, and now her reward was to be a marriage to a man she not only knew to be reviled, but a man from another contrada. It was unheard of.
She knew Vicenzo by repute to be almost as villainous and cruel as his father, the notorious Faustino Caprimulgo. The Caprimulgo family, captains of the Eagle contrada, was one of the oldest in Siena, but the nobility of the antique family was not reflected in its behaviour. Their crimes were many – they
were a flock of felons, a murder of Eagles. Pia was too well bred to seek out gossip but the stories had still reached her ears: the murders, the beatings, Vicenzo’s numerous violations of Sienese women. Last year a girl had hanged herself from her family’s ham-hook. She was barely out of school. ‘With child,’
Pia’s maid had said. ‘Another Eagle’s hatchling.’ Apparently Salvatore could overlook such behaviour in the light of an advantageous match.
‘Father,’ she said, ‘I cannot. You know what they say of him – what happened to the Benedetto girl. And he is an Eagle. Since when did an Eagle and an Owlet couple?’
In her mind she saw these two birds mating to create a dreadful hybrid, a chimera, a griff on. Wrong, all wrong. Salvatore’s face went still with anger and at the same instant she heard the scrape of a boot behind her.
He was here.
Pia turned slowly, a horrible chill creeping over her flesh, as Vicenzo Caprimulgo walked forth from the shadows.
A strange trick of light caught his nose and eyes first. A beak and two beads – like the stuffed birds in her father’s hunting lodge. His thin mouth was curved in a slight smile.
‘I am sorry, truly, that the match does not please you.’ His voice was calm and measured, with only a whisper of threat. ‘Your father and I have a very particular reason for this alliance between our two contrade. But I am sure I can. . .persuade you to think better of me, when you know me better.’
Pia opened her mouth to say that she had no wish to know him better, but she was too well bred to be insolent, and too afraid to speak her mind.
‘It’s something you can do at your leisure, for your father has agreed that we will marry on the morrow, after the Palio, which I intend to win.’
He came close and she could feel his breath on her cheek. She had never been this close to a man save her father.
‘And I assure you, mistress, that there are certain arenas in which I can please you much better than a fifteen-year-old boy.’
The malice in his eyes was unmistakable. There was something else there too: a naked desire, which turned her bones to water. She shoved straight past him and back up the stairs to her chamber, her father’s apologies raining in her ears. He was not apologizing to her, but to Vicenzo.
Alone in her chamber, Pia paced the floor, fists clenched, blood pounding in her head. Below she could hear the final preparations being made for the celebratory feast she had believed was for her own name-day. How could her life be overturned in this way?
Several times during the evening Salvatore sent servants to knock at her door. She ignored them: the celebrations would go on whether she was there or not. Despairing and frightened, she sat huddled in a chair as dusk fell, hungry and shivering, although it was not cold.
Eventually her father came himself and she could not refuse his bidding. She was to take a turn about the courtyard with Vicenzo, he said, to admire the sunset. The servants were all inside. It would be a chance for her to get to know her husband.
Pia did as she was commanded and walked Vicenzo to his horse as the sinking sun gilded the ancient stones. Still frozen by shock, she made no attempt to converse with him, and by the time they had crossed the courtyard his sallies and courtesies had turned to scorn and provocation. Numbly, she observed how the shadows of twilight closed around her. She took him,unspeaking, to the loggia where his horse was tied and waited silently for him to mount. Suddenly he lunged at her, spinning her behind the darkest pillar. His hungry lips mouthed at her neck and his greedy hands snatched at her breasts.
‘Come,’ he whispered viciously, ‘the contracts are inked, you are nearly mine, so nearly.’
She fought him then, desperately crying out, although there was no one to hear, striking him about the face and chest. Her struggles only seemed to madden him more, and when he grabbed her by the hair and threw her through the half-door of the stable she thought she was lost. She smelled the warm straw
and tasted the tang of blood where she’d bitten her cheek. But Vicenzo seemed to check himself.
‘Stay pure, then, for one more night,’ he spat, as he stood over her, ‘for tomorrow I’ll take you anyway.’ He turned in the doorway. ‘And never strike me again.’
Then he kicked her, repeatedly, not about her peerless face, but on her body, so the bruises would be hidden under her clothes.
When at last he was gone the shock hit her and she retched, great dry heaves, into the straw. In the warm dark she could hear the Civetta horses, snorting and shifting, curious.
She straightened up, aching, and walked directly out of the courtyard straight to the Civetta church across the piazza. She laid her hands on the heavy doors that she had passed through for years, for her christening, confi rmation and shrift. Tonight she did not tenderly lift the latch but hurled the oak doors open so they slammed back against the pilasters, sending angry echoes through the belly of the old church. She ran to the Lady Chapel and there her legs gave way, her knees cracking on the cold stone. She prayed and prayed, the pendant pressed hard between her palms. Not once did she look up at the images of the Christ or Mary; she was calling on far more ancient deities for help. She thought it more likely that the antique totem between her hands could help her. She prayed for something to happen, some calamity to release her from this match. When she opened her hands there was the imprint of Cleopatra on one palm and the owlet on the other.
A year of planning, ten men, ten horses, three circuits of the piazza, and all of it over in one single moment.
No outsider could conceive of–let alone understand–what the Palio meant to the Sienese. That they ate it, breathed it, slept it. That they prayed to their saints for victory every day, the year round. That all their loyalties, their colours and their contrade proceeded from the Palio, as the web radiates from the spider. The concentric circles of their customs and society originated from this piazza and this day, and this smallest circle of all – the racetrack. Scattered with the dust of tufa stone hewn from the Tuscan hills, run by Sieneseborn men on Sienese- bred horses, right under the ancient palaces and towers of the old city. The Palio was the centre; the Palio was Siena. To know this was to know all.
On the second day of July 1723, Siena was punishingly hot. But, despite the heat, the numbers assembled to catch a glimpse of the Palio di Provenzano seemed greater than ever. On other days the beauteous shellshaped Piazza del Campo lay as serene and empty as a Saint Jacques scallop, but today it was crammed with a thousand Sienese, drumming their drums and waving their flags. Every other place in the city was empty: every street, every courtyard, every dwelling, church and alehouse. The courtrooms were deserted, the apothecaries closed. The bankers had put away their tables and the
tailors had pulled down their blinds. At the hospitalchurch of Santa Maria Maddalena the sisters instructed the orderlies to carry their patients in litters to the piazza. Even the starlings gathered to watch the Palio in the hot blue circle of sky high over the track. They wheeled around the tower-tops, to gather in smoky clouds and break apart again, dissipating like ink in water, all the time screeching with excitement.
Everyone had their role on this day of days, from the greatest degree to the least. At the very top, on the balcony of the great Palazzo Pubblico, with its crenellations of terracotta teeth and tall clock tower, stood the governess of the city. Duchess Violante Beatrix de’ Medici, fifty and plain with it, presided over the race with great dignity and grace, as she had done for ten years now since the death of her husband.
Below her the capitani, the captains of the contrade, were in final clandestine counsel with their deputies. These were the greybeards, the chiefs of their families; silver heads bent close as they discussed their final pacts and partiti. Their faces, weathered and lined, had seen it all, and they knew the city and her ways.
The fantini, the jockeys, dressed in silks of colour so bright that they stung the eye, were being given their nerbi whips, vicious lengths of stretched oxhide, which they would shortly use not only on their horses but on each other. These young men, the flower of Sienese youth, were alive with tension, their black eyes glittering, their muscles taut. Fights, both verbal and physical, broke out in little volcanic pockets along their lines. To a man they had abstained from the pleasures of their wives and lovers for weeks now, to prepare in body and mind for the race.
Ill-disguised betting syndicates signalled across the crowd in their secret ciphers, street sellers brought skins of wine or dried meats to those who had been in this square since sunrise, canny fan sellers sold paper fans in the contrada colours to their members. The Palio band repeated obsessively the solemn notes of the Palio anthem, a task they would not leave off now until tomorrow’s dawn, each musician sure of his harmony and his counterpoint.
Even tiny children flew the bright flags of their contrada, trying to emulate their older brothers, those
princes of swagger the alfieri, who, in the main parade, tossed their larger flags so high and so skilfully. The little orphan boy and water-carrier known as Zebra – so-called because he wore the black-and-white colours of the city, not of any contrada, showing allegiance to no one and everyone – trotted busily back and forth, bringing wooden goblets for the thirsty in exchange for coin, sure-footed of
mission and purpose.
The horses too, mere dumb beasts, circled in readiness. Their bridles were bright with streamers, their manes woven with ribbons, their saddles hung with pennants. They were led in rein but knew that they would soon be loosed to race, and must win for the colours that they bore.
Pia of the Tolomei felt lowlier than all of these. As a betrothed woman she was not afforded the respect that she had known when she was a marriage prize – a renowned beauty to be bargained for and bartered over by the well-to-do families of the Civetta. She was now merely a spectator, required to cheer for her betrothed and nothing more. But Pia of the Tolomei had no intention of fulfilling that role. Yes, she was going to watch her betrothed ride in the Palio, but she would not be cheering
for him. Pia of the Tolomei would be praying that during the course of it he would be killed.
For tonight she was to be wed to Vicenzo Caprimulgo in the basilica. For the last time she was wearing the red and black of the Civetta contrada. Her bruises were hidden under a girdle in the same Owlet colours around her handspan waist and her lustrous black hair was piled high under her hat. She was seated, as she had been for the last nineteen summers and thirty-eight Palios, on the elevated benches of the Owlet contrada next to her father. Mindful of this position, this upbringing and her aching ribs, Pia was trying not to cry, for by the next Palio, the Palio dell’Assunta in August, Pia would be sitting across
the square, as Vicenzo’s wife, wearing the black-and-gold plumage of the Eagles. She would graduate up the order of birds of prey to the very top.
All about her she could feel the mounting excitement, almost palpable, like a current of air or a haze of heat, but she felt completely outside of it. Pia had been born in Siena and had scarcely been outside the city. Tuscany had a coast but she had never seen the sea. Yet despite her hermetic existence in her contrada, her nineteen years bound by the city walls, today for the fi rst time she felt that she did not belong. By reason of her betrothal shewas no longer an Owlet but was not yet an Eagle; she was
an odd, vestigial, avian genus. An aberration.
In Siena every citizen was a product of their contrada. Their identity began with their ward and ended where the Dragon contrada became the She-Wolf, or the Unicorn became the Tower. Pia was familiar with the colours of each ward or contrada from the red-and-blue of the Panther to the yellow-and-green of the Caterpillar. And twice a year these divisions of geography and hue assumed an even greater significance.
In a few short hours the bitterness of loss would settle like a pall over the losing contrada and delirious joy would infect every soul in the winning ward. Vicenzo, she knew, would give anything to win today. In the horse draw, which took place some days before the race, he had drawn Berio, a big, handsome bay whispered to be the fastest horse in Tuscany, the horse that every contrada prayed to draw. As Vicenzo was reputed to be the fastest rider in the city, his chances were very good. And if he did
win, thought Pia, how would his triumph manifest itself in their marriage chamber? Only this race, lasting three score and ten heartbeats, could prolong the life of her
maidenhead. She shuddered.
Pia sat forward in an attempt to engage herself in the spectacle below. She watched as the horses and riders circled the track, following the Civetta colours out ofhabit, when her eye was caught by a lone horseman. He was walking his mount slowly, and with complete control, through the Bocca del Casato gate, the arch of the architrave framing him like a painted angel.
The horseman was a stranger to Pia. He was also the most beautiful living human she had ever seen. He had the olive skin of the region, a full mouth set in a stern and concentrated line but with the promise of softness. He had dark curling hair caught in the pigtail fashion of the day with a ribbon of the Torre colours of the Tower contrada. His eyes were dark and his features those of antique statuary – sculpted marble perfection. His form was well proportioned and muscular, his legs long and his hands gentle on the horse. But there was more too: he seemed noble. If nobility were to do with the new science of
physiognomy rather than birth, reflected Pia, then he should be sitting on the palace balcony above her head, not the homely duchess.
Pia had escaped into books for the whole of her childhood and despite Vicenzo’s violence yesterday she still believed in courtly love – perhaps now even more so. But she did not immediately cast the stranger in the role of all the Tristans, Lancelots and Rolands of whom she had read. She was too much of a realist to imagine that anyone high-born loved where they married.
She did, however, allow herself to wonder, just for a moment, how it would feel if she was betrothed to that unknown horseman and not Vicenzo. Better yet, if only he could ride for her as her champion, that courtly ideal of centuries ago, with none of the very real and physical threats that marriage promised. She would not have to touch him, nor even meet him. Touch, she now knew, was dangerous. To yearn at a blessed distance: that would be the thing. What would it be like, she wondered idly, to sit in her loge, watching that horseman ride for her, with perhaps some token of her favour hanging about his neck or twisted in his horse’s mane?
When the unknown horseman dismounted with the other jockeys to pay the traditional tribute to the duchess, he stood next to Vicenzo. In an apt allegory for his contrada the horseman of the Torre towered over his rival from the Eagle ward. Vicenzo did not, Pia refl ected, compare well. The fantini, the jockeys, lined up below Duchess Violante’s balcony, each one eyeing her with matching insolence, in a pantomime of resistance to the Medici overlords that had been enacted for ten years now, ever since the duchess had come to the city.
All save one.
The unknown horseman alone of the pack slid his tricorne from his head and fi xed his eyes to the ground with something akin to respect for the duchess’s sex, if not for her rank. Pia’s heart warmed a little, but chilled again when she turned her eyes on her betrothed. Vicenzo was peering up at the duchess with marked insolence. He had not removed his tricorne. How she hated him, Pia thought. This tiny thing, that he could not remove his hat for a lady – this elementary lack of good breeding –invited her contempt almost more than the outrages he had visited on her last night.
Next to Vicenzo stood his father. Faustino Caprimulgo, captain of the Eagle contrada, was tall and wiry, dark and swarthy of feature but with the whitest hair curled in a close cap to his head. His high cheekbones, cavernous cheeks and long, hooked nose made him resemble nothing so much as the eagle of his banner. Faustino always stood drawn up to his full height, an eagle in his eyrie, with the confidence that came from being the head of the oldest family in Siena. Despite the pomp and posturing of the Medici, all of Siena knew that in reality it was the Caprimulgi who ruled the city. They had ruled it in the days of the Nine – the ruling council of the old republic – and ruled it in all but name still. The son stood
shoulder to shoulder with his father, fixing the duchess with the same hawklike stare, a merlin beside a falcon, a smaller, meaner version of the sire.
Pia watched as the war chariot of the Palio drew up alongside the palace, drawn by four milk-white oxen carrying the Palio itself – a vast black-and-white banner in the colours of the city, emblazoned with the figures of the Virgin and the pope. Attendants folded and handed the flag to last year’s victor, Ghiberti Conto, captain of the Snail contrada, who knocked three times and was admitted to the palace doors. Moments later he appeared on the balcony next to the duchess and gave up the banner to her. The duchess took it with a nod – custodian for a few short moments before she would give it to this
year’s victor. Pia, without feeling the slightest disloyalty, reached for the coin of the Owlet where it hung around her neck and prayed that the winner would be the unknown horseman and not Vicenzo.
Pia sat forward and searched for the horseman in the Tower colours among the other jockeys below at the canapi starting ropes, all detachment gone. She saw the fantini whisper to each other from the sides of their mouths, last-minute threats or promises, as their bright silks whispered too. At this moment pacts were being made or broken as vast amounts of money changed hands. The other horses were circling and bumping shoulders; one reared and threw its rider – the green-and-white Oca colours of the Goose contrada, she noted, not he.
She realized that the stranger must have been drawn as the di rincorsa rider in the outside position at the ropes, and so it proved. He rode to the cord later than the others, but seemed to have no interest in the benefi ts of his good fortune. Usually the di rincorsa position was used to an unscrupulous jockey’s advantage, to jostle rival contrade into a bad position at the start. But Pia saw him, seated absolutely still on his horse’s bare back, speaking to no one, his eyes seeing far into the distance, making no
attempt to jostle or harry. His stallion also stood unmoving amid the mêlée, the pair resembling in their stillness the bronzes of the mounted Cosimo the Great that she had seen on her one and only trip to Florence. Pia willed him to beat Vicenzo with a violence that surprised her, her eyes boring into his broad back, staring so hard at the blue-and-burgundy silks that they blurred.
There was the customary confusion at the start of the race. As the horses circled and reared, the mossiere or starter judge called false start after false start. Then finally, in a moment of almost unbearable tension, the horses lined up and stilled as if bade by an invisible command. The yells and screams of the crowd abated for one eerie, silent second, and the unaccustomed tongue of the
great bell Sunto sounded in the Torre del Mangia above Pia’s head. Silent from one Palio to the next, the bell’s song bawled out above the city, to tell that the hour had come. All heads turned and all gazes swivelled up – for it was said that the bandierino weathervane on the Mangia Tower would turn in that last breath of wind to the quarter of the city that was to be favoured with victory. The bronze arrow quivered toward the duomo in the Eagle contrada, and the cheers from that ward almost drowned
the last chimes of the bell. Pia swallowed, sickened at the omen. But the time for reflection was up. At the stroke of seven, Sunto stopped ringing and the little mortaretto firecracker cannon sounded at the starting rope; ten horses leaped forth from the entrone, and they were off .
It was impossible for anyone who had not been here, thought Pia, to know that blood-curdling roar of the crowd, to feel the thunder of the hooves shiver your very ribs, to smell the sweat and the straw in your nose and taste the tufa dust in your mouth. The horses went by in a whirlwind, their flanks gleaming and polished with sweat, their mouths flecked with foam, past the palazzo, thundering up the curve to the Bocca del Casato. She could see the Tower colours – her champion was ahead, nudging shoulder to shoulder with Vicenzo.
By the second lap Vicenzo had pulled clear by three, four horses and was past the deadly San Martino corner–a treacherous slope truncated by the sharp stone buttress of a sturdy palazzo – but there Vicenzo’s horse was barged by the horse of the Panther party, while the Panther jockey’s whip dealt Vicenzo a stinging swipe across the face. Taking advantage of this, the unknown horseman swept into the lead, while the heir to the Eagles was flung back in his saddle as his horse faltered and checked. Then, as if time had slowed, Vicenzo cartwheeled over the reins, crashed into the San Martino
corner and fell in a heap. At the collective gasp of the crowd, the unknown horseman glanced back over his shoulder and, without a moment’s pause, threw his legs over his horse’s neck and vaulted off , landing on the dust and straw.
Pia leaned forward, her heart in her throat. For a horrible instant she thought that she had made this happen. She had wished that Vicenzo would be killed, but had not imagined it would look like this. From where she was sitting it looked as if Vicenzo had turned blackamoor on one whole side of his body – yet the dust of the track was white. Her own thudding pulses told her in an instant that this colour was blood. To the music of the screaming throng, the unknown horseman dodged the oncoming
hooves and ran to help, picking up the crumpled man.
Vicenzo’s head was at an angle that was never meant by nature, and his rescuer, doused in spraying blood, was desperately fumbling for the fractured artery. Locating the source of that dreadful fount of blood, he planted his hands firmly on Vicenzo’s spurting throat. Both men were covered in gore and the dust of the track darkened beneath them like their shared shadow. As Pia looked on desperately she saw Vicenzo’s bay horse Berio pass the little black-and-white bandierino flag that marked the
finish line – prancing with glee at his victory, as if he knew that a horse could win the Palio scosso –without a rider.
For the second time that day the crowd was eerily silent. By now a knot of people in the Eagle colours had gathered around the fallen rider – Faustino’s white head among them – joined soon by judges and marshals, an apothecary, a physician. At last the unknown horseman stood and shook his head.
Pia rose to her feet and willed herself to join that dreadful party. She stepped past her new relatives heading down to the track. Feeling, numbly, that it was somehow her duty to be with her dead betrothed, she made her way through the crowd. She was bumped and jostled and once thrown to the ground. Her brain felt slow and stupid, her limbs as heavy as if moving through dunes of sand.
She had spent nineteen years in a hothouse, a rare orchid untouched by human hand. She had been nurtured and raised and cherished as a marriage prize, and now the glass of the hothouse had been broken by her betrothal and she was exposed to the violence of the elements. As of today she lived in a physical world, a world of brutality. A world where yesterday her intended could push her down and violate her, a world where today strangers shoved her to the ground. At that moment she did not know which offence against her person was worse.
A fellow in the crowd – her father’s ostler – recognized her and the red sea parted. She straightened and called upon her dignity, feeling a fraud as the people moved aside for her, knowing her for the fallen man’s betrothed, anticipating and respecting a distress that she did not feel. She saw her father Salvatore on the fringe of people skirting the body. He did not reach out to her, but was deep in conference with Vicenzo’s brother, a pale and strange creature – Nello, was it? As if in a dream she walked past them, right to the centre of the knot of folk, and saw her
Pia gazed down on Vicenzo’s body. She saw the broken flesh at the throat, the bone piercing through,
the blood black on the dust and the foam- flecked mouth, open a little to the flies. Only yesterday that mouth had spoken in her ear with the whisper of threat, with a promise. Then, last night, he’d made good on that threat, fulfilled the promise. That mouth had fastened itself on hers, that mouth had breathed wine-stale breath into the hair at the back of her neck, as he had tried to force himself into her. Breathed and breathed until his hot gasps distilled into sour spittle and ran into her hair. Could it be true, wonderfully, terribly true, that it would never breathe again? It seemed impossible. Her forehead grew
cold and her stomach lurched. Feeling as though she would faint she reached out to a solid shape for support.
It was the horse Berio. Victor and murderer. The fastest in Tuscany, the horse who’d made Vicenzo punch the air with joy when he’d drawn him in the lots. She buried her hands in Berio’s black mane and lowered her clammy forehead on to the velvet bay of his neck. The horse stood under her hand, bemused, unsure; as if puzzled that no one was garlanding him with flowers, thrusting sweetmeats
in his mouth. He looked curiously forlorn, shaking his head repeatedly as if bothered by a fly, looking down at Vicenzo’s still body. Pia’s eyes began to flood.
‘Don’t worry, don’t worry. It wasn’t your fault, it was mine,’ she whispered. ‘I willed it.’
As if comforted, the great bay stood still at her shoulder, whickering and nibbling the lobe of her ear. Pia, weighed down by her guilt, felt the great coil of her hair escaping in a cascade of hairpins as the horse nuzzled her; her black hair and his black mane mingled, tangled, became one. Her smart black-and-red hat slithered from her head to be trodden by Berio’s great feet.
Through Berio’s black mane she saw the Eagle Faustino stagger to his feet with his child in his arms. She saw the unknown horseman place a hand for an instant on the captain’s shoulder, and Faustino turn to leave with his awful burden, followed by his contrada. The Eagles filed from the square silent as a wake, forgetting all about the banner that was theirs. Not for them the joyous victor’s Te Deum in the basilica, nor a wedding; but a laying-out, a mourning and a burial. Pia felt Berio being taken from under her hand by a groom – her hair being disentangled from the long black mane by the ostler. It was as if anyone could touch her now.
As the sorry procession left, Pia felt a great burden lifted from her. She breathed out the death and the day; and relief, sweet and clean, rushed into her lungs. Abruptly freed from her contract, she did not know what to do. Her careful upbringing, all those lessons in the etiquette of her class, had not prepared her for this. Then she knew. She could go home. She turned to go back to her family, to the Civetta, to her hearth, but the barrellike form of her father blocked her way. She reached out to Salvatore, feeling, now that she was touchable, that it was the day for a rare embrace.
Instead her father took her by the shoulders, turned her determinedly round and whispered fiercely in her nape, just exactly where Vicenzo had breathed into her. ‘The Eagle still has an heir,’ he hissed. ‘There is a son yet living, so play your hand right.’
He propelled her, with a little push, fi rmly in the direction of the Eagle cortège. Her treacherous sinews gave way then, and her knees buckled, and she was caught by two men of Eagle colours. One, she knew, was Vicenzo’s brother, Nello; the other, a cousin of the same blood. They grasped her by her upper arms and, in a semblance of support, marched her forth, her feet stumbling and her fancy boots dragging and scuffi ng in the dust. She was captive.
Pia struggled. She heard herself saying no, no, no, repeatedly. The crowd, witnessing all, began to seethe and bubble like a cauldron with a muted hubbub of enquiry and answer, but all contrade, for once, were united in respect for the grief they saw before them. The poor dame couldn’t accept that her betrothed was gone. She was swooning and babbling with grief. The Eagles would look after her.
In a desperate appeal Pia twisted her head round toseek the unknown horseman, but he did not mark her. Standing in the blood, as if the dark stain was now a shadow snipped from his heels, he was wiping his hands and face with his own scarf. The gore left the scarlet of his neckerchief unaltered. But everything else was changed.
As Pia was carried under the Bocca del Casato gate, the one through which the horseman had entered the arena, she felt a tug at her sleeve. Hopeful of salvation, she looked down and saw only the little water-carrier Zebra. He held something out to her in his hand, trotting to keep up with her. It was a black velvet pouch with the gold Medici arms stamped upon it, a purse of mourning alms from the duchess.
As her captors snatched the purse without a word of thanks, Pia looked back one last time, far over the heads of the multitude, to the palace balcony. She might have imagined it, but she thought the duchess had raised a hand to her – a gesture of greeting, sympathy, what?–before the shadow of the architrave swallowed her.
High above the piazza, Duchess Violante Beatrix de’ Medici watched as the struggling girl disappeared from view. She rose, at last, to her feet. And the black-and-white Palio banner, unmarked, fell from her hand over the balustrade in a graceful fluttering arc, to rest in the blood and the dust.