From Advent to Epiphany there was a continuous parade of musicians and acrobats at Senza Pari; the entertainment, always an essential part of the season, was reputed to be superior at the home of Bondama Atta Olivia Clemens, more than the equal of any titled nobleman in Roma. No part of the festivities was neglected—food, dancing, music, amusements, all were lavishly available.
“Not that Sanct’ Germain approves,” said Olivia to her major domo as the two of them met in her library at the deepest hour of night. “He warned me that I bring too much attention to myself.”
“You have said that he often lives splendidly,” said Niklos, who had removed his shoes and was rubbing at his feet. “Who would have thought I could still get blisters.” They were speaking a language they had evolved between them—part Imperial Latin, part Italian, part Frankish—in the long years they had spent together.
“It’s my penchant for remaining in the same place and living conspicuously,” said Olivia as she removed the elaborate pearl drops from her ears. “It’s one way to have some protection. A woman alone invites attention; I prefer to command it.”
“We’ve lived other places,” said Niklos absently. “I wish we still had those Turkish chairs.”
“There are many things I wish I had; many, many things,” said Olivia, and for an instant her hazel eyes were spectral.
In all the time he had known her, Niklos had never learned to see these flashes of despair without sensing an echoing desolation in himself. Very deliberately he changed the subject, saying lightly, “What is the matter with that damned Genovese with the squint? He has run into me six times in the last two days. Every time I look up, there he is, squinting.”
“He has a weakness for handsome men, or so I’ve been told,” said Olivia. She dropped onto an upholstered bench and sighed. “I agree about the Turkish chairs. How many more days of this, Niklos?”
“Seventeen,” said NikJos, straightening up and flexing his toes. “That’s better.”
“Why not wear softer shoes?” she asked, not completely paying attention. She fiddled with the short tendrils of fawn-colored hair that framed her face. “Whoever decided that showing all the forehead was immodest?” she asked of the air.
“Wrists, too,” said Niklos with a slight laugh.
“Oh, yes,” said Olivia, making no excuse for her sarcasm. “The view of an uncuffed wrist is enough to undo us all.” She looked away abruptly, and when she turned back, she spoke more evenly. “Pay me no mind, Niklos. I am…oh, I don’t know what I am.”
“Bored?” suggested Niklos gently. He started to draw on his uncomfortable shoes, making sure the modest rosettes were fixed properly.
She considered her answer. “Perhaps I am. I’m restless for no reason, to no purpose. Perhaps there is nothing more extreme the matter than that I feel it’s all so tedious.”
As he got to his feet, Niklos said, “There is Bagni’s suggestion.”
“To go with Giulio Mazarini to Parigi?” She shrugged. “I haven’t been there in…”
“Centuries,” Niklos supplied bluntly when her voice trailed off. “If you want a change, why not Parigi?”
She made a complicated gesture. “It’s too difficult and it’s too easy, all at once.” Her expression softened to rueful amusement. “It doesn’t make any sense. I can’t ask you to understand it, because it isn’t sensible.” As she put her hands into her lap, she toyed with the antique cabochon emerald in her largest ring. “What would be the point of leaving?”
“What would be the point of staying? You said yourself, in the summer, that it is approaching the time for you to have another disappearance. We have been here sixteen years straight.” He paced down the room, his steps muffled by a splendid carpet brought from Persia three hundred years before.
“Yes, yes.” She put her hand to her brow. “There are many people in Parigi who have seen me here; Giulio Mazarini is one of them. What is the point of picking up and leaving if there are those who know me? It would not be a successful disappearance.” She clapped her hands together. “There’s the New World, but the thought of crossing the ocean is…out of the question.”
“It could be arranged,” said Niklos gently. “You do not need to suffer.”
“Certainly,” she responded with alacrity. “I can stay off the water. After that nightmare in Portugal, I never want to sail beyond sight of land again.” She touched her forehead. “I should return to my guests.” But she made no move to leave.
“They will not notice that you do not eat if you wait until they are done,” said Niklos, rising and adjusting his peplums so that they fell evenly from his high-waisted English-style doublet. Although the cloth was satin, it was plainly cut, and only the lace at the hem of the peplums suggested luxury, as was fitting in a major domo.
“Of course,” said Olivia, sighing. “I wish we had a good Roman holocaust to heat this place, instead of these smoky hearths. We’d be warmer.”
“We could have a holocaust and Roman floors,” Niklos reminded her as he had many times before, “but it would give rise to comment.”
“And we do not want comment, oh, Dio mi salva, no,” said Olivia in exaggerated horror. She extended her foot from beneath the hem of her wide, brocaded skirt. “Next time I won’t wear these chopines,” she said, speaking of the Venetian shoes she had on. “They’re miserable for dancing.”
“You could change them now,” Niklos suggested.
“It would account for my absence,” she said, nodding in a remote way. She rubbed at her side where her corset was tightest. “They say the French are shortening the stomacher and are wearing less restrictive corsets.”
“The Pope does not approve,” said Niklos with a slight smile.
“The Pope is not supposed to approve,” snapped Olivia. She shook her head once. “Pay no attention. I am in the mood to argue with someone—about anything.”
Niklos chuckled softly. “Olivia, would I were a worthy sparring partner for you.”
“You come closer than any other,” said Olivia with asperity, but knowing that Niklos would not respond to any goad.
“Save one,” said Niklos.
“Save one,” she agreed. She lowered her eyes and pressed her knuckles together. “I suppose I must face them again.”
“Is it so much an ordeal?” Niklos asked, and knew the answer from all his years with her. “They are not—”
One of the servants scratched at the door. “Bondama.”
Olivia lifted her head, making a warning gesture for silence to Niklos. “What is it, Giorgio?”
“There is a messenger. He has just arrived.”
Niklos shot her a quick glance. “Shall I leave?” he whispered.
“Why? You’re major domo here.” She went to the door, her face set in a smile that touched only her mouth. “Enter, Giorgio,” she said to the young page, indicating where he was to stand. “Tell me who this messenger is and why he has come now.”
“He is a personal courier from Alessandro, Cardinal Bichi. He has a letter for you.” Giorgio ducked his head, turning suddenly bashful. At eleven, he was still awkward in his duties.
“Show him into the salon by the inner garden,” she said when she had given the question a moment of thought. “See that he has wine and something to eat.” She held out a silver coin. “For your good service, Giorgio.”
The boy took the coin, bowed gracelessly once, and left.
“Alessandro, Cardinal Bichi,” said Niklos, one dark brow raised. “Very interesting.”
“That it is. First Bagni and now Bichi. How curious.” She made sure the door was closed. “Niklos, for my sake, 1 want you to listen to what the courier tells me.”
“That may be nothing,” said Niklos without much feeling. “For that matter, he may know nothing.”
“True enough,” said Olivia, now doing her best to shake off the oppression of spirit that had taken hold of her. “I wonder if we’ll hear from Barberini next—that would cover the French faction at the Vatican, wouldn’t it? Bagni’s note was covert. I will wager three gold angels that this messenger is unofficial as well.”
Niklos shrugged. “And what is the official excuse for his being here?”
“Doubtless he is bringing greetings of the season for the holidays. 1 am wealthy enough that it isn’t strange.” The fatigue was back in her face once more. “It’s foolish of me, to miss so much.”
“And you do not mean all that has vanished, do you,” said Niklos gently, very softly.
“No,” whispered Olivia. Then she took hold of herself again. “Well, I had better see to this messenger before he decides that I am avoiding him.”
“Wise enough,” said Niklos. “I will need a little time to conceal myself.” He indicated the room, nodding toward the small inner door that led to Olivia’s private apartments. “Are you going to change shoes?”
She looked down at the tips of her toes emerging from beneath her skirt. “Probably not. Though I wish these were not so treacherous to balance on.”
“You always say that about your shoes.” He made a gesture of mock helplessness. “Except when you say that they are less than slippers and are good for nothing.”
Finally Olivia laughed, and though the sound was tinged with a kind of grief, it was better than the wildness that had been in her voice earlier that evening. “You’re right, and I am clearly being impossible.”
“Not impossible,” Niklos corrected gently. “Just unhappy.”
She could not answer at once. “You know me too well, old friend.” With that she gave a tug to her skirt so that it would hang properly, and started resolutely toward the door.
“What are you going to tell him?” Niklos asked.
“I don’t know what he has to say to me.” She opened the door and looked out into the hallway. “By the way, we will need new lanthorns at the door by tomorrow.”
“I will attend to it myself,” said Niklos, and watched her close the door. He tapped his fingers together, trying to assess her mood, feeling greater concern for her than he had been willing to reveal to her. Now, there was a strong line between his black brows and his ruddy-brown eyes were deep and troubled. He gave a short, hard sigh and crossed the room, cursing his shoes as he went.
By the time he slipped into the concealed room beside the salon, Niklos had resigned himself to his distress. He adjusted the old-fashioned oil lamp that hung in the little chamber and slid back the panel behind the largest painting in the salon. Now he could observe most of the chamber without being seen.
The Cardinal’s personal courier was a young man, dressed in elaborately Spanish style—the preferred mode at the Papal Court—that was the worse for being rained on.
“You wished to see me?” Olivia said as she entered the salon unannounced. Her expression was carefully neutral and her words, though polite enough, did not encourage elaborate courtesy.
“Bondama Clemens?” said the courier, starting to bow and then hesitating.
“Yes.” She indicated one of the two upholstered benches that faced the windows, dark and rain-spangled now. “Please. Be comfortable. ”
This time he did bow properly. “How good of you to receive me while you are entertaining guests.”
“All the more reason to come to the point,” said Olivia with asperity. “You have something to say, pray do so.”
The courier sat down and shook out his bedraggled, shoulder-length curls. “I have been asked to arrange a meeting, if you are willing.”
“That depends on who the other parties are,” said Olivia with a slight, firm smile.
“Cardinal Bichi is eager for you to meet with Giulio Mazarini.” He did not look at her. “They have certain things they would like to discuss with you.”
“The same sort of thing that Cardinal Bagni might have mentioned to me?” Olivia suggested. “Or are you not at liberty to say.”
“Well,” the courier responded warily, “I have no knowledge of what the Cardinal might have said to you—”
Olivia shook her head in exasperation. “You have a very good idea, though you might not know the precise words. It has to do with Mazarini’s going to France. I assume this is more of the same.”
“It is…related,” said the courier. He laid his hand on the hilt of his sword. “There are many who oppose this cause, and there are risks. You are a widow, and the Cardinals would understand if you were not willing to—”
“As a widow,” Olivia interrupted, “I am especially useful to the Cardinals, and I would appreciate it if none of us denied that. I have no family to hold me here, and no family to demand difficult explanations from any Eminence who might be involved.”
This time the courier made no attempt to answer. “I would like to tell my master that you will agree to a meeting.”
Olivia held up her hand. “Why—other than my widowhood—am I so sought-after?” Before the courier could answer, she provided the reason herself. “It is my stud farm near Tours, isn’t it? I have an excuse to be there, and there need be no explanation for my inclusion in Mazarini’s suite.”
“It…it is a factor.” The courier was staring at her now, partly in fascination, partly in repulsion. “The Cardinals might not…feel the same…” His gesture was intended to be an answer, but it was not successful.
“I suppose I have no reason to be surprised.” She went to the window and stared out past the glistening raindrops to the darkness. “And if not now, then they will try another time, won’t they? Your master can be most insistent.”
“Madama?” the courier asked, pretending not to understand.
“I know the Cardinals of old.” She looked toward the vast allegorical canvas showing Susannah and the Elders, ironically amused to know that her gaze met Niklos‘. “Once they are determined on a course, it is an accomplished thing.”
“They are the lieutenants of the Pope,” said the courier dutifully.
“When it suits their purposes.” Olivia shook her head once, making up her mind. “All right. Tell your Cardinal Bichi that I will meet with him and with Mazarini—though he and I have encountered each other once or twice before—and any of the rest of them.”
The courier regarded her directly. “You would journey to Fran-cia if it were necessary?”
This time Olivia took a little time to answer, and regarded the painting of Susannah fixedly as she did. “Certainly. If it is necessary. ” Her smile was the more enchanting for its sadness.
* * *
Text of a letter from Giulio Mazarini to Cardinal Richelieu, written in Latin and carried by Richelieu’s personal courier.
To the man who is most surely the hero of France and the model of all men of principle and purpose, at Paris; under seal and under the rose.
Rest assured that I have continued with the plans we have agreed upon, and that although there has not been as rapid an accommodation made as either of us would like to have, I remain confident and tranquil in the sureness that God could not have brought me to you only to have me fail in our great purpose.
The Cardinals who join in our cause have continued with their aid and assistance, both openly and privately; I am confident that there will be a satisfactory resolution to our venture in the very near future. So certain am I of this happy outcome that I have already begun to arrange for my companions in anticipation of my coming again to France. As you recommend, I have selected my suite from among Romans who have some interest in either my family or in France. My nieces are full of schemes; in their delight they indulge in every joyous whimsey in their plans for their arrival in Paris.
I have offered prayers for your returning health every morning and evening. I am convinced that God will not require you to abandon your goal with it so nearly accomplished, and you will be restored once more to your full strength. Without doubt you will be spared—and with God’s Grace you will once again flourish as you have before. Be staunch and cheerful, for France has become great while you guided her in the Name of God and the King; such greatness cannot be swept away by a single misfortune.
Extend my greetings and my prayers to His Gracious Majesty, to Her Majesty the Queen, and beg that I may be permitted to assist them again in years to come.
How much wisdom you have given me, my master and my friend! And how much more I have to leam of you to have the smallest part of your knowledge. I thank God for His Goodness in allowing me to serve you. You are the peace of Europe and the center of the greatest Kingdom on earth, for which God be praised again and again.
With my prayer, my endless gratitude, and the hope that God will shower limitless blessings on you for your excellence,
Giulio Mazarini, Abbe
On the 19th day of February, 1638.
Caveat: to be destroyed.
copyright ©1989 by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro