Excerpt of In The Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant
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My lady, Fiammetta Bianchini, was plucking her eyebrows and biting color
into her lips when the unthinkable happened and the Holy Roman emperor's
army blew a hole in the wall of God's eternal city, letting in a flood
of half-starved, half-crazed troops bent on pillage and punishment.
Italy was a living chessboard for the ambitions of half of Europe in
those days. The threat of war was as regular as the harvest, alliances
made in winter were broken by spring, and there were places where women
bore another child by a different invading father every other year. In
the great and glorious city of Rome, we had grown soft living under
God's protection, but such was the instability of the times that even
the holiest of fathers made unholy alliances, and a pope with Medici
blood in his veins was always more prone to politics than to prayer.
In the last few days before the horror struck, Rome still couldn't bring
herself to believe that her destruction was nigh. Rumors crept like bad
smells through the streets. The stonemasons shoring up the city walls
told of a mighty army of Spaniards, their savagery honed on the
barbarians of the New World, swelled with cohorts of German Lutherans
fueled on the juices of the nuns they had raped on their journey south.
Yet when the Roman defense led by the nobleman Renzo de Ceri marched
through the town touting for volunteers for the barricades, these same
bloodthirsty giants became half-dead men marching on their knees, their
assholes close to the ground to dispel all the rotting food and bad wine
they had guzzled on the way. In this version, the enemy was so pathetic
that, even were the soldiers to find the strength to lift their guns,
they had no artillery to help them, and with enough stalwart Romans on
the battlements, we could drown them in our piss and mockery as they
tried to scale their way upward. The joys of war always talk better than
they play; still, the prospect of a battle won by urine and bravura was
enticing enough to attract a few adventurers with nothing to lose,
including our stable boy, who left the next afternoon.
Two days later, the army arrived at the gates and my lady sent me to get
On the evening streets, our louche, loud city had closed up like a clam.
Those with enough money had already bought their own private armies,
leaving the rest to make do with locked doors and badly boarded windows.
While my gait is small and bandied, I have always had a homing pigeon's
sense of direction, and for all its twists and turns, Rome had long been
mapped inside my head. My lady entertained a client once, a merchant
captain who mistook my deformity for a sign of God's special grace and
who promised me a fortune if I could find him a way to the Indies across
the open sea. But I was born with a recurring nightmare of a great bird
picking me up in its claws and dropping me into an empty ocean, and for
that, and other reasons, I have always been afraid of water.
As the walls came into sight, I could see neither lookouts nor sentries.
Until now we had never had need of such things, our rambling
fortifications being more for the delight of antiquarians than for
generals. I clambered up by way of one of the side towers, my thighs
thrumming from the deep tread of the steps, and stood for a moment
catching my breath. Along the stone corridor of the battlement, two
figures were slouched down against the wall. Above me, above them, I
could make out a low wave of moaning, like the murmur of a congregation
at litany in church. In that moment my need to know became greater than
my terror of finding out, and I hauled myself up over uneven and broken
stones as best I could until I had a glimpse above the top.
from In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant Copyright
© 2006 by Sarah Dunant. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a
division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this
excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing
from the publisher.