Pietro Barbino

Stańczyk during a Ball at the Court of Queen B...

A Curious Woman

Pietro Barbino shuffled quietly into the Duke’s great room and, finding it empty, smiled and turned to leave.

“Stay, Pietro,” a voice said, and a slender figure appeared in the doorway at the end of the room. It was the duchess, in a crimson silk gown that brushed the tops of her bare feet and clung tightly to herbreasts.

“Cosimo and the men are returning from their hunt,” she said, walking. Her toes made soft noises on the marble as she came. “But by some lucky accident they have been delayed. I have you to myself.”

The duchess smiled and knelt.

“My lady?” Pietro stammered. “Do you need a jester at this hour?”

Eleanora’s soft white skin, her eyes—and her lips—were exactly aligned with Pietro’s. He could smell sweet wine on her breath.

“I may,” she giggled.

Pietro felt himself redden (among other things) and noticed, then, the way the dress had slipped from the duchess’ shoulder, carelessly, exposing the smooth curve of her ivory skin—

But suddenly the door crashed open and Eleanora’s gentle laughter was broken.

“There’s my fool!” Cosimo roared. “Speaking most improperly to my own wife!”

In tow were half a dozen men in riding raiment. They took up a chorus of laughter at the Duke’s prompting.

“Tell me, dwarf,” Cosimo said, eyeing Pietro with a sly smirk, “is everything short about you? Do you think she’d even feel it?”

The duchess stood and pulled her gown back over her shoulder. The men had brought the cold inside.

“Cosimo…”

Cosimo, cosimo,” the duke japed. “You know you’ve wondered, woman, don’t deny it.”

The duke removed a flask and took a long, violent pull.

“Yes, Pietro, she has. She confessed it to me. She is a curious woman, Pietro. And you will indulge her curiosity. Now.”

The men roared with laughter and Pietro began to shake—as much from shame as from rage.

“Go on, fool,” Cosimo growled. “Give us a laugh.”

***

The Root

“Come, Pietro,” Cosimo said. “I have fodder for your jests.”

Pietro cast aside his wineskin and eyed his master with as much contempt as he thought wise.

“Oh, don’t pout, Pietro,” Cosimo said softly. “It was all in fun. Isn’t that what I pay you for?”

“You humiliated me.”

“Are you to tell me that’s the first time a woman has laughed at your deformity? Seen that stub between your stunted legs?”

“Lady Eleanora didn’t laugh,” Pietro replied meekly. Cosimo bristled his black mustache.

“No, quite right,” he said. “But as it turned out she wasn’t very particular, was she? She’d mount just about anyone…”

Pietro sputtered.

“I never—“

“Of course you didn’t,” Cosimo spat. “You’re far too cowardly. Now follow. I am not asking.”

Cosimo turned and strode from Pietro’s chamber, and Pietro—though he hesitated just long enough to consider how cowardly he truly was—followed close behind.

The house was eerily silent, though the sun was still hours from setting; it streamed through the windows in the hall, carrying the bloody hue of the dust from the fields and the green-gold silhouettes of diaphanous leaves.

“I have sent the servants home…” Cosimo muttered as he began plodding up the stairs. He hummed, off-tune and off-time, as they made their ascent.

By the time they stopped outside Cosimo’s chamber, Pietro already knew what he would find through the door. Heartsick, he hesitated.

“In,” Cosimo commanded, and Pietro obeyed.

In the chamber, in the corrupted light that struggled through the velvet curtains, Lady Eleanor lay on her back, naked, with her eyes half open and her mouth gaping. Her legs were spread.

“Does her body arouse you now?” Cosimo asked.

Pietro shut his eyes, determined not to see the lady’s nakedness. But he felt something turn within him, then, a twisted darkness—as if by some wicked alchemy his heart had suddenly calcified, like a dead root in an icy stream.

“Yes,” he admitted, and his hatred was everything.

***

Pietro Barbino

Pietro Barbino was short of stature, ample of bosom, and drunk of wine.  He tottered to the fountain and sat with a groan.

Cosimo,” he said, letting the word fall from his lips like dribbled port. “Cosimo de’Medici. First of his name – except for the other one – Duke of Florence and Grand Duke of Tuscany.”

He spat and held out his empty hand.

“The wineskin, Giovanni,” he said, but the boy wasn’t listening; he was staring wistfully up at the villa, where cascades of laughter had just then burst from the courtyard.

“You’re six, Giovanni,” Pietro said, though not unkindly. “That’s old enough to know what a bastard is and old enough to know that this will never be your home, not really. But stick with me and I’ll be your father. Surely I’d be better to you than Cosimo de’Medici… The wine, boy, bring it here.”

Giovanni may have been young, but the boy was every bit as tall as Pietro himself – and taller now that he stood while the dwarf sat. He eyed Pietro disdainfully, and seemed poised to disobey, but at last he handed him the skin.

“You never make me laugh,” he said. “What good are you if you won’t make me laugh? You are my father’s jester, aren’t you?”

Pietro uncorked the skin, took a long drink and wiped his mouth with his sleeve.

“Your father’s jester, yes, but not yours. Cosimo de’Medici, first of his name, Duke of—“

“Stop it.”

Pietro smirked. He would have gone on, but his thirst was strong. He emptied the skin and tossed it into the fountain.

“Someday, Giovanni, there will be a statue of me on this very spot,” he said, untying his trousers and relieving himself in the reflecting pool. “Long after your father is dead. Long, indeed, after you are dead – of syphilis or murder or whatever kills young noble bastards these days – and the world will never know or care that I was once another man’s fool.”

***

The Black Fool

“I’m the Black Fool now.”

Pietro Barbino was drunk again, and making japes at his master – but this time his master had nothing to say.

“Black Fool, for I’ve stained my motley garb… with this…”

He stared in wonder as he took his hands away. The blood, clotting, pulled into long, sticky tendrils. It seemed black in the half-light. Pietro leaned closer.

“I can’t hear you, Cosimo,” he growled. “Your mouth is open, but I can’t tell: are you laughing? Are you pleased with your fool?”

The two stared at one another – the dwarf searching his master’s lifeless eyes for any last spark of cruelty, Cosimo glaring back, cold, purple, and stubborn as ever.

“Hmph.”

Pietro stood and listened a moment to the night. He’d thought he’d heard footsteps on the marble in the courtyard, but the villa was asleep; the fountain gurgled, the night birds sang and the poplars rustled, but all else was silent. Pietro sighed.

“You killed papa,” a voice said suddenly.

Pietro turned to find a boy standing in the doorway, barefoot and sleepy-eyed. The moon cast an ethereal light upon his face, so bright that he nearly glowed.

“He was not your father, Giovanni,” Pietro said, but the boy paid him no mind; he was staring at the shadowed figure by the wall, slumped in the wide, shiny pool. He trembled.

“Now, Giovanni,” Pietro said, edging slowly closer. “You wouldn’t shout, would you? You wouldn’t like to frighten anyone. Your papa will be alright…”

Pietro knelt before the boy and stroked his cheek, leaving a slick, gory mark.

“Go now, into the garden,” Pietro said calmly, and suddenly the boy saw him again. There was trust there still.

“Fetch some water and we’ll help him together, you and I,” Pietro said. “He’ll be alright, but you must hurry.”

At last the boy turned and padded off toward the fountain. When he’d gone, Pietro took the knife from the floor and followed, a black sadness clutching at his heart.

***

Original Sin

Pietro Barbino stumbled through the forest, chased by visions, his head swimming from wine. It had been years since he’d last seen Giovanni – in the flesh – but the boy followed him everywhere now.

“Please,” Pietro cried to the misty trees, “leave me in peace!”

Still, Giovanni staggered doggedly behind.

The boy never spoke and his face never changed – it was bruised and unblinking, the tongue swollen, thrust between chipped teeth and bloodstained lips – but his judgment was clear enough, and Pietro wept to look upon him.

“If you must following me, I beg you, say something. Castigate me, curse me – but leave off with this dreadful silence.”

Pietro let the wineskin fall to the ground where it sank in the leaves. The drink only made it worse anyway. Whores were little comfort; stealing and gambling brought no relief; and even when he killed, which was often enough, it was a hollow thrill. Gouts of fresh blood could do nothing to wash away his oldest sin.

“Fine,” Pietro said at last. “Fine.”

There was one thing he hadn’t yet tried.

He found a stream and followed it down hill, to where the rills and burbles, brooks and trickles came together and rushed in a great confusion toward the sea. Here he knelt by the water and splashed his face, and opened the bag he’d carried these many miles.

His hand first found a pocket watch, snatched from his master’s chambers. He cast it to the tide. Then he found an apple, brown and small with rot, which he tossed aside.

And then he found his knife, pitted and scored, black to the hilt with too much blood. He studied for a moment its keen blade, until it, too, he gave to the hungry waters.

When he took the Rosary in his hands, his fingers were numb and clumsy on the beads, counting the Mysteries.

“I believe in God,” Pietro began, “the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth…”

Giovanni watched in silence.

***

Man and Beast

Pietro knelt in the half-light, clutching the rosary to his chest, mumbling his prayers. Faith was the only balm for a soul as ragged and ruined as his. He had been six years at the monastery, and still the wounds had not healed.

“How did you find me?” he asked at last. The girl swept into the room and sat on the edge of his cot.

“How many dwarves do you imagine there are in Florence?” She laughed. “When I couldn’t find you in any of the whorehouses or alehouses, I started searching the churches.”

Pietro sighed. He had finally begun to feel better. He’d finally begun to pass the nights without dreaming of Giovanni’s mangled smile—without waking to find his chamber echoing with his own mad laughter. He turned.

“I have repented…” he began. The girl was not quite a woman, but her laughter was practiced and cruel.

“You are an animal,” she said, “and animals do not change. A dog may hang his head when chastised, but he will throttle the rabbits and mount the bitches when his master next turns his back. Besides, you misunderstand: I don’t want the repentant man you are. I want the animal you were.”

She edged toward him, pulling her skirts above her knees. Pietro’s eye wandered, and the girl smiled.

“You see…”

Pietro looked resolutely to the ceiling.

“Why are you here?”

“Cosimo was my father’s brother by law. When he and his bastard were killed—and I thank you for that—his estate fell to my father.” The girl began to unlace her gown. “But my father doesn’t know how to treat a lady. He hoards his money and leaves the villa empty. I would change that.”

When Pietro hazarded a glance in the girl’s direction, her gown had slipped from her shoulders.

“This is a monastery,” he whispered. The girl only laughed and took his hand.

“Stop hanging your head, dog,” she said with a smile. “It’s time to play again.”

***

Father Pietro

“I mean to make you my husband, Pietro.”

Pietro leaned forward, certain he’d misheard over the clatter of horse hooves and carriage wheels. Ippolita smiled wickedly.

“My family has always punished you for what you are,” she said, smoothing her skirts. Her hands lingered between her legs as she met Pietro’s gaze. “But if you do me this… kindness… I promise I shall remember you.”

Ippolita sat with her legs delicately crossed—a tiny thing, so light that the slightest jostling of the carriage bounced her on her velvet cushion. She was as dangerous as she was beautiful, but Pietro was only a fool by profession, and he wasn’t so easily played.

“Why can’t you do this thing yourself?”

“Kill my own father?” Ippolita shrugged. “I could. I wouldn’t shrink from such a thing, but it would seriously complicate my inheritance.”

Pietro watched the cypress trees marching by. He smirked.

“And yet you would openly reward the murderer by marrying him.”

“If you do it well, no one will know you for a murderer…”

“But I will be a jester still.”

Ippolita took Pietro’s hand and squeezed.

“You will be my husband, and I will be Duchess of Milan. If anyone should be so stupid as to throw your past in your face, we will simply contrive some way to remind them what you have become.”

Pietro had been a murderer, a cheat and a whoremonger, but never a husband… and never a father. The closest he’d ever had to a son was Giovanni—who had despised him and loved him by turns, and who had died upon his blade.

“We’ll have children?”

Pietro felt half a child himself to ask the question, and he blushed, but he wanted it more than anything.

“I certainly intend to try,” Ippolita said, insensible to the emotion that had overcome him. “And try, and try, and try.”

  1. I read the series for the first time today, and I love what you’ve done with it. It’s intriguing and wonderfully evil.
    More please!

    • Thanks! I really appreciate it, because I don’t think too many people make it all the way to the beginning to read the whole thing. I’m glad you liked it!

Comments, constructive criticism, destructive praise:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: