the serpent and the pearl

Inside The Writers’ Study . . .

A fun Q&A this time around, and with one of my dear friends Donna Russo Morin. Not only does Donna have more fabulous leopard-print stilettos than Angelina Jolie (she’s the one in our convention photo here with a classic Angelina “leg” pose), but she writes fun and fast-paced Renaissance romps – she was number 1 on the list as a reader when I went to the Renaissance to write, too!

And she’s got fun questions here, taken from the famous “Inside the Actors’ Studio” series. Purpose? “To expose aspects of a personality with short but intrinsically revealing questions.” (You can find all kinds of actors doing this on YouTube–Daniel Radcliffe’s answers are a hoot!) Not sure I’m as funny as Harry Potter, but here’s a taste with the first two questions . . .

“What is your favorite word?”
Can I have two? “Check enclosed,” to borrow a bon mot from Dorothy Parker.

“What is your least favorite word?”
`Mew.’ I read a book where a character mewed with passion, and it scarred me for life.

For more, click here!

Older Men, Younger Women: The Historical Dilemma

I’m guest blogging over at one of my favorite book blogs today – Passages to the Past. And the topic? The dilemma of how to write around age differences in historical fiction, or rather, how my teenage crush on Sean Connery helped me understand how a teenage Giulia Farnese could hop into bed with the 40 years older Rodrigo Borgia:

“For idle fantasy, men have it all over boys. When Sean Connery from “First Knight” picks you up for the evening, you know he won’t show up driving his mother’s mini-van littered with fast-food wrappers. When Colin Firth from Pride and Prejudice invites you out to eat, you know he doesn’t mean a 99 cent Frosty and a small fries at Wendy’s. If Liam Neeson from from “Rob Roy” gives you a present, it wouldn’t be a mixed-tape of grunge bands you’ve never heard of. There’s no awkward pauses in the conversation because Jeremy Irons from “The Man in the Iron Mask” knows how to carry on intelligent discussions and not just stare at your chest, and there’s no fumbling on the doorstep because Sean Bean from the Richard Sharpe series most assuredly knows how to kiss you goodnight without getting saliva on your chin.”

To read the rest, click here – and don’t forget to enter the giveaway!

Would The Borgia Family Be On Facebook Or Twitter?

I’m chatting with Debbie over at The Reading Frenzy today, and she had some great questions! Including my favorite: “If the Borgias could use social media, would they prefer Facebook or Twitter.” My answer:

“Lucrezia Borgia is just a teenage girl during The Serpent and the Pearl, so she’d be a Facebook junkie: `OMG, just saw portrait of Prince of Aragon; he’s like Henry Cavill gorge!!! Fingers crossed this betrothal goes through!!!` And my heroine Giulia Farnese, papal mistress and the most fashionable woman of the Renaissance, would be a Pintarest girl: `Here’s the hairstyle I wore to Mass last Sunday; you need six strands of pearls and five feet of hair.’ 300,000 women have repinned this!’

To read the rest, click here. And don’t forget – I’m showing up at the Writerspace Reader’s Chat Room at 9pm ET tonight for the Berkley Jove Author Chat, so drop by to say hi or ask a question if you feel so inclined!

Wife, Nun, or Whore: The Three Fates

I’m joining the Berkley Jove author chat tomorrow night! Drop by the Writerspace Reader’s Chat Room at 9pm ET if you’ve got a question for me, or would just like to say hello.

I’m also over on the Queen Anne Boleyn site today, talking about the three fates for Renaissance women: wife, nun, and whore. How much do you know about how each variety of woman led her life? A snippet . . .

“Women born to the respectable but not ruling classes, like my heroine Giulia Farnese, simply didn’t go anywhere. Unmarried girls were kept firmly sequestered in the house to guard their virtue; the only place they might go to see and be seen was church. Even after marriage, Renaissance matrons were expected to keep to their own households, their lives a round of domestic duties, the occasional family party, and of course, more church. And that’s if you were lucky enough to get married in the first place–if you weren’t, your life was nothing but church.”

6 Rules For Surviving Release Day Jitters

For the fourth time in my life, I can type the words “I have a book coming out today!”

You’d think it would get easier. But no, I’m a mass of nerves. For over a year, you see, my book baby has led a sheltered existence: much like a real baby, it was tended by a doting mother, sheltered and cosseted in a loving environment, shown off only to a few close friends and family who could be relied upon to croon praise. But books grow up faster than real babies, and I’m once again standing in the doorway watching that book head out into the world like a kid heading off to college. My job is done, and I did the best I could–and I’m still nervous that it wasn’t enough.

I’m also thrilled, because I have the best job on earth, and I know how lucky I am. And hey, it’s my fourth rodeo, so at least I know how to combat the Release Day Jitters by now. All you need to do to survive your release day is follow these six simple guidelines.

1. Drink champagne. Drink lots and lots of champagne.

2. Enlist friends. Ideally writer friends who have suffered release day jitters of their own. Go out for lunch, get pedicures, do anything you like–but these friends must be given carte blanche to use any force up to and including handcuffs to keep you from obsessively clicking Refresh on your Amazon Sales Ranking. Stephanie Dray and Sophie Perinot are my jailers pals today, bless you both.

3. This one is for the spouses of writers in question: flowers are nice. Also, repeated spontaneous reassurances that the book is not in fact complete crapola destined for the remainder table. My spouse excels at this.

4. Read somebody ELSE’S book. Nothing like a fascinating trip to somebody else’s fictional world to keep your mind off your own. I was lucky enough last year to share a release day with Elizabeth Loupas–her The Flower Reader saved my sanity. Elizabeth let me down this year (I’m counting days till her The Red Lily Crown releases) so perhaps a Harry Dresden reread is in order. Like all fourteen books.

5. Don’t check Amazon. I’m serious. Friends and spouses may want to consider disconnecting the internet for the day.

6. Did I mention champagne? Drink more.

So I guess that’s really only four rules, but you get my point. In any case, The Serpent and the Pearl is off to the hands of its readers–for a teaser promo, watch here. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to pop a cork.

The Blog Tour Begins!

Okay, maybe it only FEELS that way when you’re trying to make sure you’re prepared. 😀

Publication day for my new book “The Serpent and the Pearl” isn’t until tomorrow, but my blog tour has already begun. I’m very excited to be visiting some new blogs as well as returning to some favorites. I’ll be updating here, so check in if you want to follow me around the blogosphere.

Today I’m over on Flicks and Food today, talking about Renaissance food, my fiery heroine who would totally win Top Chef if she wasn’t six hundred years too early, and the aphrodisiac menu (featuring roast peacock!) she creates which gets a certain Borgia bad boy’s heart racing.

To read, click here!

Meet The Heroine II: Trying To Interview A Busy Chef

My secondary heroine from The Serpent and the Pearl proved to be a bit hard to track down . . . in fact, I had to run her to earth in her kitchens, where she’s up to her elbows in a bowl of flour.

Her: Look, I don’t know about this interview business. I have a dinner for twenty to get on the table.

Me: Just a few lines for the readers? Your name, what it is that you do?

Her: My name is Carmelina Mangano, and I’m the best cook in Rome.

Me: You are?

Carmelina: Yes. They say a woman can’t be maestro di cucina, not professionally, but I was hired to cook for the household of Giulia Farnese, the Pope’s mistress. I’ve fed the Pope Himself, and half the illustrious people of Rome–I’ve carved my own place in the world with nothing more than the skill in my hands, and I’m proud of it. Hand me that bowl, will you?

Me: What are you making?

Carmelina: Elderflower fritters. Giulia Farnese eats them by the basketful; she’s a cook’s dream to feed. Loves food, eats everything, pays on time.

Me: Any bad parts about working for the Borgias?

Carmelina: That little bodyguard Cesare Borgia hired for Madonna Giulia. Leonello. He’s a devil.

Me: Because he’s a dwarf?

Carmelina: No, because he’s dangerous. And because he asks too many questions.

Me: Questions about what?

Carmelina (glowers): Hand me the butter, will you? These fritters need to go into the frying pan.

Me: Of course. Now, I have to ask–maybe it’s one of those things you don’t want to talk about, but what is that horrible shriveled up thing on the spice rack?

Carmelina: It’s a holy relic. The hand of my patron saint, the most blessed Santa Marta.

Me: You keep a mummified hand in your kitchen?

Carmelina: Of course. Santa Marta is the patron saint of all cooks. She prepared a meal for Our Lord while Mary and all the apostles were busy sitting at the feet of Christ.

Me: And for that she got made the patron saint of cooks?

Carmelina: Why not? Maybe Our Lord was happy to get a home-cooked meal for once, rather than everybody just looking at Him to provide all the food by transforming loaves and fishes. Besides, somebody had to get dinner going while everybody else sat around worshipping at His feet. I’ll bet not one of those apostles helped Santa Marta with the dishes, either.

Me: You know, I think you’re probably right.

Carmelina: Of course I’m right, I’m the best cook in Rome. Now, not to throw you out of my kitchen, but I’ve got to pay attention while these fritters fry. And if I burn them up because I’m answering questions, I’ll fry up your gizzard in white wine and coriander, and serve that to Madonna Giulia instead.

Me: I’m going, I’m going!

Meet The Hero: A Dangerous Dwarf Gets Interviewed

My her from The Serpent and the Pearl is a reclusive sort, but I dragged him to my blog today for an interview. 😀

Me: Why don’t you introduce yourself for the readers?

Him: My name is Leonello. (Props his boots up on my desk unasked)

Me: Leonello what?

Leonello: I’m distinctive enough that I don’t need a last name.

Me: You are distinctive, I must say. Dark hair, hazel eyes, about thirty years old, a sarcastic expression–

Leonello: Are we going to ignore the elephant in the room? I’m a dwarf.

Me: True, you are. How has your stature affected your life?

Leonello: I’ve managed so far not to get stomped to death by drunks, or have to take a job as a jester for layabout Renaissance lords. I count myself a success.

Me: What is it you do for a living?

Leonello: I used to be a card-sharp. Sit down at a game of primiera with me, and I will be very happy to relieve you of your money. But I don’t have to play cards for a living anymore.

Me: What is it you do now?

Leonello: The Pope’s son Cesare Borgia hired me. I’m to be a bodyguard for his father’s mistress.

Me: Aren’t you–wait, the Pope has a mistress?

Leonello: Why, doesn’t your current pope have one?

Me: Definitely not. Um, aren’t you a little atypical, as a choice for a bodyguard?

Leonello: Because I’m short? You can go ahead and say it.

Me: Ok, because you’re short.

Leonello: I may be short, but I’m dangerous. I throw knives.

Me: How well can you throw knives?

Leonello: I could put a blade through each of your eyes at ten paces, before you could blink your lids shut.

Me: Don’t demonstrate, please.

Leonello: Wouldn’t dream of it. I love being underestimated. Everybody underestimates a dwarf.

Me: I think Tyrion Lannister said something very similar on “Game of Thrones.”

Leonello: Now you’re being lazy. Just because we’re both dwarves doesn’t mean I have anything else in common with Tyrion Lannister.

Me: What’s the principal difference between the two of you, then?

Leonello: He wants to be liked, and he tries to make people laugh. That’s fine; it works for him. I don’t care if I’m liked, and I’m nobody’s jester, and that works for me.

Me: Are you always this sarcastic?

Leonello: You know I am. You invented me.

Me: Yes, but you’re not allowed to be sarcastic to me. I created you; you’re supposed to be nice to me.

Leonello: Dio. Am I done now?

Meet The Heroine: Giulia Farnese Gets Interviewed

The Serpent and the Pearl: a novel of the Borgias releases in just five days! (I’d bite my fingernails, but I don’t have any left.) I’ve been lucky enough to get some wonderful early reviews–the Historical Novel Society reviewers had this to say about my narrators: “Three compelling characters weave a tangled trajectory through the life and politics of 15th-century Rome. Carmelina’s sharp tongue, Leonello’s caustic wit, and Giulia’s unconditional good humor in the face of danger play off each other beautifully to create another riveting novel from Kate Quinn.”

Want to meet these three very-compelling but very-different folks? Over the next few days I’ll be interviewing each of my characters here on my blog as a promo. Today let’s welcome Giulia Farnese, who was more than happy to drop by and tell you a little about herself!

Me: Lovely to have you here, Giulia.

Giulia: Thank you for inviting me. Do you have anything to nibble? I’ve never been interviewed before and it’s making me nervous, and I always eat when I’m nervous.

Me: You don’t know about chocolate, do you? That’s a little after your time. Here, try this.

Giulia: Reese’s Pieces, what’s that? Holy Virgin, they taste heavenly. Can I have the recipe for my cook? Her name’s Carmelina, and she’s an absolute gem.

Me: She’s not going to be able to do much if chocolate isn’t invented yet. Let’s have your full name, for the readers.

Giulia: Right, sorry. I’m Giulia Farnese, but nobody calls me that anymore. I’m either “Giulia La Bella,” which is very nice; or “the Venus of the Vatican,” which is sort of nice; or “The Bride of Christ” which isn’t nice at all. I have a sneaking suspicion my bodyguard Leonello came up with that one, since he finds it so side-splittingly funny.

Me: Why do they call you that?

Giulia: Well, Giulia la Bella comes from the fact that I have floor-length hair. I don’t really think I’m much prettier than anybody else, but I do have this hair that comes down to the floor, and everybody seems to think it’s terribly romantic. I don’t know why; it takes forever to wash and even longer to dry, and it’s always getting tangled around everything. I don’t know about you, but I don’t call that very romantic.

Me: What I meant was, readers might like to know why you’re called the Bride of Christ.

Giulia: It might be a reference to the Holy Father.

Me: You mean the Pope? The former Cardinal Borgia? Who is he to you?

Giulia: (demurely) He’s my mother-in-law’s cousin.

Me: So you’re married?

Giulia: It’s complicated.

Me: How complicated?

Giulia: How long do you have? We’ll be here all day before I’ve even finished telling you how strange the wedding night was.

Me: Just tell me about the Pope then. People say he’s paying court to you . . .

Giulia: Do you have any more of those Piece of Reese things?

Me: Reeses Pieces. Now, about the Pope–

Giulia: You know, you have hair the same color as mine. And two feet of hair is much more sensible than five feet. I’ll bet yours doesn’t choke you when you sleep.

Me: All right, keep your secrets!

Giulia: All will be revealed August 6. Are you sure chocolate hasn’t been invented yet in my time?

Me: Sorry. I wrote about you, but I can’t change history for you.

Giulia: That’s too bad. Do come visit again. And bring more chocolate! I always eat when I’m visiting.

Sneak Peek: The Serpent and the Pearl, Chapter 1

Dark theatre. Deep cheesy voice.

“In a world where darkness reigned and The Borgias got cancelled after only three seasons . . . 

It’s Preview of Coming Attractions time: a little less than a month till publication date of my fourth book The Serpent and the Pearl: a novel of the Borgias. And as usual, I’m posting Chapter One as a sneak peek. Enjoy!

Chapter 1

“Before all else, be armed.”



When I first came to Rome, I had nothing to my name but a tattered bundle of recipes and a mummified hand. One was my shame and the other, with a little luck, was my future. “Santa Marta, don’t fail me now,” I murmured, patting the lumpy little bundle under my skirt, and knocked.

I had to knock four times before the door yanked open, and a serving woman with a face like an angry walnut appeared. “Yes?” she said shortly, looking me up and down. I might be tall, long-faced, and plain at best, and I certainly did not look my best that morning, but she didn’t have to make it so clear.

I pinned a smile into place. “I seek Maestro Marco Santini. He is maestro di cucina here?”

“You’re not the only one seeking him. He owe you money? He had to pay the last one in spices, and Madonna Adriana wasn’t happy–”

“He’s my cousin.” All true so far, though anything else I told her would likely be lies.

“Well, he’s not here. Madonna Adriana’s son is to be married, and Madonna Adriana palmed the feast off on that cardinal cousin of hers. Maestro Santini, he’ll be at the Cardinal’s palazzo now with the other servants, making preparations. Dio,” the serving woman muttered, “let him be there.”

“Where?” I felt my smile slipping. I’d crossed half the city already in too-tight secondhand shoes; my feet hurt and sweat collected between my shoulder blades because a late-May morning in Rome was far hotter than it had any right to be. And if this stupid woman kept blocking my way I’d cut off her thumbs and fry them in good olive oil with a little garlic and make her eat them. “It’s very important that I find him, signora.”

She set me on my way with a grudging set of directions, so I spared her thumbs and plunged back into the chaos that was Rome. At any other time I would have gaped at the noise, the crush, the din, so different from the silent waterways I’d always called home, but life for me had narrowed. Carts rumbled past me on one side, swaggering young bravos in parti-colored doublets shouldered past on the other, sharp-eyed servant girls counted coins to wheedling vendors, and stray dogs sniffed my skirts as I passed–but I saw none of it. I plowed through the crowds as if blind, walking a tunnel of noise and color I’d followed south all the way from Venice to Rome. A terror-laced tunnel with Marco at the end of it: a cousin I hadn’t seen in five years who had somehow become my only hope for survival.

Well, my eyes might not have registered much, but my nose did. Even as my heart thudded and my feet ached and my frightened thoughts yammered in my brain telling me I was a fool, my nose was busy parceling out the scents and smells of Rome. You can’t turn off a cook’s nose: My whole life was fracturing around me like one of those impractical Murano goblets that break the instant you look at them, but my nose was happily telling me Manure, yes, from all the carts; ox blood, my, you don’t get that in Venice; let’s see, that smell there feels like sun baking on marble, and what’s that dusty sweet scent? Incense? Yes, incense, of course, considering there’s a church or a shrine in every piazza in this city. Even with my eyes shut, my ever-busy cook’s nose could have told me I was no longer in Venice. Venice was sulfur and brick and the hot, melting-sand smell of sun on glass; rot rising from the canals and salt from the lagoon. Venice was home.

Not anymore, I reminded myself grimly as I passed the Ponte Sant’Angelo where they hung the bodies of those thieves less fortunate than me–those, in other words, unfortunate enough to get caught. I saw one fresh corpse, a thief who had had his hands and ears chopped off and strung about his neck before being hanged. He had a smell too, the rich stink of rot. Beside the thief was a heretic who had been hanged upside down and was now little more than a few picked bones. The crows were busy all over the bridge, pecking and gulping, and I said a quick prayer that they’d never peck and gulp at my bones. Which at the moment was far from certain, and for a moment I thought my queasy stomach would heave up what little food I’d been able to afford that morning.

But then I saw my goal: the Cardinal’s palazzo rising rich and arrogant midway between the Campo dei Fiori and the Ponte Sant’Angelo. “Can’t miss it,” the sour old walnut in the apron had told me. “Not with that huge shield over the door. Got a bull on it–what kind of crest is that for a man of God?” And even if I’d missed the bull, there was no mistaking the crush of people flowing through the great doors. Ladies in figured velvets and air-light veils; clerics in red and purple robes; young dandies with jewels on their fingers and those huge slashed sleeves–yes, a wedding party awaiting the arrival of the bride.

Those grand double doors weren’t for me, not in my too-small shoes and the patched ill-fitting dress I’d gotten used off a vendor who tried to tell me the stains at the hem were embroidery and not old mud. But there’s always a separate entrance for servants and deliveries, and soon I was knocking on another door. This time I didn’t even have time to pat the little bundle under my skirt and mutter a prayer before the door wrenched open.

“Thank the Madonna, Maestro, you’re–” The young man in the apron broke off, staring at me. “Who are you?”

“Carmelina Mangano.” I felt a lock of short black hair spring loose on my forehead, the heat frizzing it out from under the headdress I’d improvised from another length of stained cloth. “My cousin, Maestro Marco Santini–”

“Yes?” the apprentice said eagerly. “You know where he is?”

“I was hoping you could tell me.”

“Oh, God in heaven,” the boy moaned. “He flitted out to play zara this morning, just a round, he said, no more than an hour, just to relax him before the feast. Saints help us, it’s been hours now and we’re sunk–”

Sounded like Marco was up to his old tricks. “A nose for sauces and a hand for pastry,” my father had often complained about my cousin, “and nothing between the ears but cards and dice!” But the apprentice had turned away from the door, yammering and moaning to a cluster of flour-aproned serving girls, and my nose started swooning.

Saffron. Sweet Santa Marta, how long had it been since I smelled saffron? Or the sweet sizzle of duck being turned on a spit and sauced with honey and the juice from an orange? A sharper smell, that would be fine vinegar, the good stuff from Modena so tart and yet so mellow on the tongue it could bring tears to the eyes…

I’d spent the last weeks breathing fear like air, the sour taste of it and the acrid smell of it–and now I smelled something else, something good, and the fear was gone. Without meaning to I’d followed my entranced nose inside the kitchens, past the cluster of agitated apprentices. All around me was a kitchen thronged with people, but I just closed my eyes and sniffed rapturously. Olive oil. Good olive oil sizzling in a pan rather than lurking sullen and spoiled in a jar; olive oil so fresh from the pressing it would still be bright green when it was poured… the sweet burn of pepper just ground… the smoky saltiness of cheese fresh-cut from the wheel–I hadn’t smelled good cheese in at least a year. Flour, the fine milled stuff so light it drifted in the air, and something savory baking in a crust…

Or burning in a crust. My eyes snapped open, and I saw a telltale puff of smoke from the nearest oven. I flew across the kitchen, lifting double handfuls of my stained skirt to seize the hot pan and whisk it out of the heat. The pastry shell bubbled black and scorched, and before I could think twice I was shouting.

“Santa Marta!” I yelled, and the agitated cluster of white-aproned apprentices and serving girls turned to stare at me. “Letting a tourte burn? If you worked for me, I’d dice you all into a pottage!”

“Who are you?” one of the serving girls blinked.

“Who cares who she is?” an apprentice snarled. “Maestro Santini’s scarpered off to play zara again, and if we can’t get that bloody wedding feast ready–”

They began to argue, and I just let my eyes travel the kitchens. What a sight. Small, cramped kitchens, for one thing–the Cardinal with the bull over his door might have spent a fortune on that fine tapestried entrance hall I’d glimpsed as the wedding guests streamed in, but he hadn’t spent a ducat on his kitchens. Still, the cramped smoky fireplace and bowed spit and inconveniently placed trestle tables weren’t what made me start cursing. It was the sight of the roast birds not being turned and basted on their various spits, the bowls of flour not being kneaded into pastry, the eggs not being whipped into delicious frothy peaks. The sight of iniquity, immorality, pure evil, and possibly the world’s end: a kitchen in disorder.

“If we just send out the roast peacock,” one of the undercooks was saying, “do you think they’d miss the veal?” But I cut him off.

“How many wedding guests?”

Blank looks passed between them. I wouldn’t need to cook this lot into pottage; it was clearly all they had between the ears. “The menu,” I snapped. “Tell me.”

“Whole peacock in its plumage–”

“Veal with morello cherries–”

“Bergamot pears with cloves–”

A menu pieced itself together out of the disjointed chorus. A good one, too–Marco was a dice-rolling pazzo, but the pazzo had trained under my father, and he could cook.

So could I. And there wasn’t a recipe here I didn’t know as well as my own name.

“Someone get me a small knife.” I looked around the kitchens, found a discarded apron, and tied it over my disreputable dress. “And where are the onions? Genovese onions, if you have them.”

The pot-boys gazed at me as they perspired in the heat of the banked fireplace; the white-aproned apprentices stood behind the long trestle tables with their haphazard arrangement of pots and bowls and looked at their toes; the serving maids whispered behind their hands before sinks mounded with dishes. “Who are you again?” one of the apprentices said at last, rudely. “We aren’t taking no orders from you.”

Ah, the sound of an insolent apprentice. How long had it been since I’d put one in his place? Even longer than the last time I’d smelled good cheese.

“I’m Maestro Santini’s cousin.” I smiled benevolently, finding a small knife and beginning my hunt for Genovese onions. “And who are you?”

“Piero. And just because you say you’re his cousin–”

“The wedding guests approach, Piero,” I interrupted him, leaching the sweetness out of my voice and letting it sink to a venomous whisper. My father’s whisper, the one that could whip round a kitchen shriveling spines as it traveled. “The wedding party will soon arrive, and the peacock isn’t even off the spit yet. The pastry hasn’t been rolled. The one dish I see plated in this ninth ring of hell you call a kitchen is a very nice shad over there. And the cat is eating it.”

The maids and scullions just looked at each other and mumbled. The cat hissed at me: an enormous tom with a tattered ear who bent to give a leisurely swipe of his tongue along the length of the fish. Beautiful shad, impeccably braised in what I suspected was the sauce of cinnamon and cloves that my father detailed in the packet of recipes in my pouch (page 386, Chapter: Sauces). Though when I made that sauce I liked to add a dash of salt and vinegar for bite, and just a few threads of saffron to give it color…

“Out!” I shooed the cat to the floor, helping it toward the door with my foot. “Out, unless you want to end up on the spit! Now, if you batch of parboiled fools can tell me–”

“Maestro Santini?” A woman’s voice sounded behind me. I whirled and then hastily followed the example of the maids and curtsied before the stout gray-haired matron in her elaborate headdress. “Maestro Santini, where–” Her eyes traveled apprehensively around the kitchens, as though she were afraid something would explode all over her maroon silks.

“Madonna Adriana,” Piero the sulky apprentice said, and then apparently ran out of inspiration. His eyes hunted desperately around the mess of pots and pans, the piles of flour, and the blackened pastry.

“Madonna Adriana da Mila, I take it?” I swept forward with my most radiant smile, hoping she wouldn’t notice my stained dress under the apron. “Maestro Santini has spoken to me often of how honored he is to work in your household.” No one had told me anything about her, actually–just her name, the employer in Rome who had been fool enough to hire Marco as her cook. Just an idle line of gossip from my father, but I’d followed the slender thread of that name all the way south to Rome. “I am his cousin Carmelina Mangano, newly come from Venice. Naturally I agreed to assist my cousin for such an illustrious occasion as this.”

She reared back. “I agreed to pay for three extra pairs of hands in the kitchens, not four–”

“I work free, madonna.” I crossed myself. “As is a girl’s most sacred duty.”

Madonna Adriana brightened–ah, yes, one of those illustrious silk-clad ladies whose eyes shone not for sweets or jewels or compliments, but for the thought of getting something cheap. Better yet, free.

“Your son’s wedding, madonna?” I continued in my creamiest tones. It’s an art, oiling the patrons–my father had no sweet words for his family but he was a master at oiling up his customers. He could have a cheap old bitch like this one sweetened, spiced, and on the spit before she even knew she’d been skewered. “A happy occasion! All is as it should be here, I assure you.”

“I heard, er, shouting.” My cousin’s employer hunted about the borrowed kitchens with her keen peppercorn eyes. “You’re certain all will be ready soon? The wedding procession has crossed the piazza–“

“And your son will hardly taste a bite of any dish we make, he’ll be so eager to see his bride, but all will be ready anyway.” I pinned a smile into place like a capon’s little trussed legs, not breathing until Adriana da Mila gave a last dubious look.

“Be careful with that good sugar,” she warned over her shoulder. “So expensive!” And then, thanks be to God, she was gone.

“So.” I turned on the now-cowed cluster of undercooks and maidservants, foot tapping beneath my aproned skirts. “You know who I am. I am the one who can pull this wedding feast out of thin air.” Can you? my traitorous thoughts whispered. You haven’t done any real cooking in two years. But too late to think of that now. “I am the one who is going to save your position in Madonna Adriana’s household,” I continued in the most confident voice I could muster. Their positions, and Marco’s with them. Normally I’d have threatened to cut my cousin’s ears off and toast them with basil and pine nuts for abandoning a wedding feast midflow, but now I could kiss him. I hadn’t even laid eyes on Marco yet, but already he owed me a favor. Or he would, if I truly managed to deliver this wedding feast.

I’d have to. Because it was quite a favor I needed out of him in return.

My heart began to hammer and I tasted fear again in my mouth, sour and rancid, as I thought of just what I was risking. But I had no time for fear, not now. I was Carmelina Mangano, daughter of a great cook in Venice and cousin to another here in Rome even if he was a card-playing fool. I was twenty years old and maybe I all I had to my name was a mummified hand and a keen nose, but I had a houseful of hungry wedding guests coming and may Santa Marta herself cook me and eat me if I sent them away unfed.

“Everyone listen.” I clapped my hands, and when that wasn’t enough to stop the apprentices’ grumbling, I stamped one foot. “I want to see mouths shut, mouths shut and hands moving, because if the wedding procession has turned out into the piazza, we’ve no time to waste. Piero, get that peacock off the spit, brush the breast with honey, and stick it all over with candied pine nuts. You, what’s your name? Ottaviano, the bergamot pears; peel them in hot wine and roast them with some ground sugar and whole cloves. Serving girls, the credenza. If it’s groaning with things to nibble, they won’t notice if the first dishes are late. Dried figs, olives and capers, those small Neapolitan limes and pink apples over there, Ligurian cheese if you have it–”

“I don’t know where–”

“Start looking.” My own fingers were flying over the pot of zuppa someone had left over a low fire. I took a sniff, and my ecstatic nose told me pepper, verjuice, sauteed truffles–ah, yes, the oyster stew on page 64, Subsection: Soups and Stews. I found a small knife and began shucking oysters into the sizzling mix. Tiny roasted chicks were supposed to go into the pot; had anyone roasted any chicks? All that came to eye was a spit of roasted squab. I tossed the knife down and fished out the packet of papers from my pouch (the other pouch, not the one with the dead hand) and flipped to page 84. Squab may be used in place of chicks, my father had written in his tight scrawl. Add more verjuice and some ground Milanese almonds to thicken the broth. It was the first time I’d looked at his collection of recipes since the day I’d stuffed the loose-bound ragged-edged pile of handwritten paper into my pouch when his back was turned. For a moment I blinked, looking at the tightly packed lines of text, written in the odd shorthand code he’d employed to keep his secrets from thieving rivals. But not from me–I’d read all his recipes, and now the black penned lines of coded spices and meats was all I’d have of him.

Never mind. We’d never shared much, my father and me, besides recipes. If he could see me now, he’d be the first to drag me back by the hair to face the justice of Venice.

Signorina, the credenza–“ The harried maids were hovering around me now, too resigned or too desperate to object to taking my orders.

“Put the cheeses out, all of them, and the cold meats.” I finished with the oysters and took swift stock of the pantry, calculating dishes. Salty nibbles to make the guests reach for their wine–once they had enough wine in them they wouldn’t notice how late the roast peacock was. “The mortadelle, the sow belly, the salt ox tongues–that prosciutto, slice it very thin first so it looks like marble–skin those pears, ox-brain, skin them before you add the sugar!” A steward stumped past muttering, trailed by a stream of servants with wine flagons. “Keep that wine pouring,” I called after him.

Was that the clamor of guests upstairs already? I flung another prayer heavenward as I threw myself on an onion and began to chop. Help me now, Santa Marta. You know what it’s like to cook for important people. Of course, Santa Marta had cooked for our Lord, but I suspected He would be a lot more patient if His food was late than Adriana da Mila’s son and his new bride.

On the other hand, maybe not. Hungry guests are hungry guests, and I very much doubted if the heavenly ones were any more useful than the earthly kind when it came to helping in the kitchen. They say Mary was wiser than Marta, sitting at the feet of Christ and worshipping, but I always had more sympathy for Marta. Somebody had to do the dishes while everyone else was worshipping at the feet of Christ. Christ must have thought so too, since He made Marta into a saint, and not just any saint but the patron saint of cooks like me all over the earth. Maybe He was grateful to get a good meal for once, instead of having to do all the work Himself conjuring up fishes and loaves.

We understood each other, Santa Marta and I, long before I’d started carrying her dead withered hand around in a pouch under my skirt.

Despite my flying thoughts, I couldn’t help smiling as my fingers sealed a crumble of fresh cheese and sweet olive oil and Genovese onions into a pastry crust. The cramped little kitchens were humming like a beehive, the apprentices were working like hired mules, and I imagined I could hear the murmur of guests upstairs: the whisper of expensive silks, the peal of laughter from a happy bride. The clink of fine glasses, the crunch as salted nuts and honeyed dates and morsels of Ligurian cheese disappeared into the mouths of cardinals and wedding guests and bridegroom alike. The oohs and aahs that went up as the roast peacock, my roast peacock, came swaying in at last on the backs of two serving men, proud and feathered and sweet-cooked and not at all looking like it had been whipped together in a quarter of the time it needed (at least if you didn’t look too close).

My heart was hammering, my hair was frizzing out of its scarf again, I had no past and only the barest of futures–a future I was trusting to luck, and to my own rusty skills. If either failed me, I’d probably end up on the Ponte Sant’Angelo hanging next to all the other thieves and renegades whose luck and skill had failed them. Or sent back to Venice where an even more gruesome fate lurked, God help me. But my cheese and onion tourte was already bubbling sweet and golden in the oven; I had the smell of olive oil and cinnamon in my nose again; my hands and no doubt my face were covered in flour. I hadn’t cooked in two years, but I was cooking now–my old skills were rusty, but not gone. I hadn’t lost my touch. And for now, that was enough to call happiness.