THE SUMMER OF 1578
But perhaps Caterina had.
She seemed to glide through the filth, like she had the first night I saw her in the palazzo, the hem of her violet gown never touching the mud. As I watched her float on ahead of me, I wondered. It is said that witches can be bodily transported, carried through the air by devils over long distances. Surely this was not the phenomenon before me. Surely it was her grace, her poise, her refinement playing tricks on my eyes.
The crushing mob cared not whether she flew or levitated or trudged. The people on every corner knew her, loved her, made way for her. One man walked on ahead, a self-appointed escort for our peculiar entourage. The women called out for blessings for their children, which Caterina bestowed willingly. She stopped to cradle babes in her arms, to hand out warm loaves of bread and small toy boats for the little boys. She played hopscotch with a giggling gaggle of sickly little girls, chess with a band of rough and ready-looking sailors and even stopped to kick a ball with half a dozen young squires.
When we reached the orphanage, it was as if the sun had appeared, burning away the cloying death shroud that covered the city. The children sang for Caterina and danced around her feet while she helped the nurses clean the linen, sweep the floors and prepare lunch. She spoke with the nurses at length, compiling detailed lists of urgent medicinal and food supplies, consoling the crones about the pointless deaths of four children overnight. She visited with the older men and drank tea with the women, bringing them stories of the world outside, the world they were now too ill to see for themselves.
She spent the afternoon teaching classes. First there was reading and writing, then arithmetic, history and geography. She insisted that all the children attend, boys and girls alike, much to the chagrin of the onlooking men. One decrepit patriarch took offence to her approach, interrupting her instruction with offensive bellowing, protesting that girls had no use for book learning. Our self-appointed escort quickly silenced the rant, manhandling the patriarch out into the street before I was even on my feet. She ended her lessons with fantastical stories of warriors and courtiers, mesmerising the children, transporting them, if only for a moment, to a world full of love and hope.
All the while, I looked on quietly, unable to comprehend. I had been so wrong. I had wondered at her nature. At worst, blinded by fear, I had silently accused her of witchcraft. At best, I had thought her like me: practical, self-serving. Caterina was nothing like me. She was my better in every way. Here was a woman, who despite being labelled a witch, a harlot, a whore, was risking her life every day to bring joy to the children, the future of La Serenissima.
I knew then that I had to do something.
I have to fix this gaping hole, this chasm, this floating funeral pyre that my once beautiful city had become. All the way back to the palazzo, I could not bear to even look at Caterina. I went to take her hand, from pure force of habit, but could not bring myself to wrap my hand round hers. I was too ashamed; ashamed of my ignorance, of my ineptitude, of my total disregard for my people, of my inaction. I, the most powerful man in all of La Serenissima, had done nothing to halt this rising crest of death, to provide succour and relief for my people. It had been left to Caterina. It could not continue. I would not let it continue.
That is why I now sit staring at the ceiling, transfixed by the leering frescoes. Awake for more than half the night, wrestling with how to make this right. Without Caterina, my usual confidant and counsellor, the night has been exacting. I have debated every inclusion, lamented every exclusion and poured over every word, until the decree was fitting, until it did justice to its namesake: Caterina’s Law.
My beloved city’s salvation is not one that will come quickly or readily. I am no fool. It will take time and money and regulation. Caterina’s Law is but the first step in a long sojourn. The decree will see the founding of state-funded and run orphanages, hospitals with proper supplies and schools for the poor, even the little girls. Housing will be provided for those who cannot find a warm bed. Food will be given to those with empty bellies. Every man, woman and child who calls themselves a citizen of La Serenissima will have a proper burial. The streets, the canals, the laneways and the palazzos will be clean. This disease will be stopped. We will no longer be captives in our own city. La Serenissima will once again be the shimmering diamond in Neptune’s crown.
And I owe it all to Caterina.
I glance over to where she lies, curled up in our bed. She perched on the window seat for hours, watching the bustle of the Canal Grande, trying to make me talk to her. She twittered for hours, competing with the birds outside our window, as the sun plunged below the skyline. Ultimately, she tired of the one-way conversation, retiring in a temper hours ago. But I could not talk to her. I could not find the words. How to explain my shame to her? How to make her see that she will be the muse for my city’s rebirth? I could not explain until the way ahead, until my strategy was clear.
Caterina hugs a pillow to her chest, as if to protect herself from some imminent danger, some pending doom. A slight frown mars her beautiful countenance and a murmur escapes from her lips. Her golden curls are splayed across the pillow, across her face. I rise stiffly from my desk and creep across the room, careful not to wake her. Smoothing the hair from her face, I gently bend and kiss her lips.
My heart fills with joy and I know that my decision is made. As I slide in under the blankets next to Caterina and pull her close, I know that tomorrow I will ask her to marry me. She will be my queen. She will no longer be a cortigiana onesta, accused of witchcraft at every turn. She will be my wife.