A small moment in the life of one of history's most interesting wormen
|The sun is barely up and already Forli is bustling. The smell of freshly baked bread makes me smile. My city.
I shouldn’t be out walking the streets alone like this. If I were any other woman, any other wife, my husband would punish me for slipping away. Fortunately, my Girolamo cares little for where I am or what I do. He lies abed with some whore, giving me precious time to think.
I hear them talking, the grocer and the tailor’s wife, come to buy eggs and milk. She’s complaining about the price.
“A whole ducato? Who has money like that?”
“I’m sorry, Signora, but my Lord’s new taxes…”
“That porca miseria,” the woman curses, looking up at the keep with narrowed eyes. The greasy-skinned old man dabs at his brow with a dirty sleeve, glancing around in case their conversation is overheard. He catches me looking. I hurry away before they realize who I am.
“Merda,” I mutter under my breath, glad Nonni Bianca isn’t around to hear me swear like the peasantry. It’s almost ten years since I left my home in Milan, but Nonni’s scolding still rings in my ears at times like these. I hear her wisdom too, her pride. We are a family of warriors, we show no fear.
Up on the walls, the guards let me pass without comment. I come here often, to look out over my city and to think. To the east, the rolling hills are drenched in golden light. The air is warm. A light breeze tries to lift the heavy flags, but fails. Another might feel joy at the promise of such a beautiful day.
Not me. Life has ruined too many beautiful days with cruel tidings.
The morning sun was streaming in the playroom windows twelve years ago as Alessandro and I waged war against each other with hundreds of tiny figures spread across the floor. I had been close to routing his horsemen when Mama Bona sent for me.
“It is time for putting away such childish things—time for you to serve your family.”
Marriage to Girolamo Riario, nephew of the Pope himself. That is what they asked, nay, what they commanded of me. He was a powerful man, twenty years my senior. I was to replace cousin Costanza, whose silly mother wouldn’t let her marry until she was of age.
No matter, I thought as I paced the walls of the castello that afternoon, looking out over the lands my father ruled. At ten I was practically a woman. I’d been trained in Latin and the classics. Nonni Bianca had made sure I knew as much as any boy about application of arms and the skills of government. I would be alright.
Still, the fear crept in. What if my husband was cruel or controlling? What if everything I learned was for naught?
Squaring my shoulders, I vowed I would bend my knee to no man unless I chose to.
I still feel the conviction of that younger self, urging me on, but I am no longer a child. I have a daughter of my own, just turned six, and boys, so many boys. Their fates are more important than my ambition.
Turning away from the past, I look down over Forli and think of the tailor’s wife. Her anger is echoed throughout the city, loudest among the artisans and landowners—powerful people Girolamo has angered through his own folly. So long he persisted in charging no tax at all, until our coffers were dry and our people fat and comfortable. I urged him, long ago, to introduce tax slowly, so they might get used to a small inconvenience. Now we have nothing and he demands too much all at once. Foolish, foolish man.
I feel the anger coursing through my blood as I remember every sin, every stupid mistake he’s ever made. Only last year, I risked my life and my unborn child to cross the Tiber and occupy Castel Sant’Angelo. I knew how much we’d lose if they chose an enemy as our new Pope. In my husband’s name, I controlled the most strategic point in all of Roma, but what did that idiot do? He accepted terms and ordered me to withdraw. Now where is the money they promised us? Where is the papal army he was to captain?
I breathe deeply, then let it all go. Anger, passion, resentment—these are distractions from the task at hand and time is running short. The people will rise against him. I can see the signs: furtive looks and angry whispers, a sickening reminder of the men who murdered my father in the Basilica while all my brothers and sisters looked on.
No, we cannot trust our lives to fate, nor the goodness of the human heart. We must fight for survival, or die at the hands of our enemies. If Girolamo won’t heed my warnings, then let the city have him. I’ll safeguard his legacy and teach our eldest son, Ottaviano, to have more sense.
On my way back to the keep, I stop and give the grocer my sweetest smile. He is shocked to see the Lady of Forli shopping at his humble street-side stall.
“My Lady. . .” He bows deeply, sweat beading across his forehead. Perhaps he recognizes me. He is clearly terrified.
“Good day, Senior.” I pay three whole ducato for a few sweet rolls to take home to my children. “Fear not. Seniora Porcetta’s words were justified. I wish my husband would listen, but he’ll hear none of your words from me.”
“My Lady,” the man says, a note of awe in his voice. As I walk away, I smile to myself, knowing I have won my first supporter. I only hope I have enough time to win more.