THE SPRING sign of the Ram is, of course, the earliest in the Zodiac; and Aries relates to the first House in the Wheel. You will have read the Divine Ptolemy on the subject. The Greeks considered the starfield of the Ram to represent the Golden Fleece sought by the heroic Jason; others called it the Ram of Ammon instead. You may now forget the whole issue. It is my business, not yours. Your business (and mine) is the star of Niccol?, whose foot I am required to set on the same quest as that of Jason.
Whether I can do it, I am not at all sure. He is nineteen years old, and clever. It is clever to begin life as a dyer's apprentice in Bruges and gain control of your employer's business by marrying her. A business in Flanders is worth something. Flanders is ruled by the Duke of Burgundy, one of the richest princes in the world, and feared even by the King of France, although Charles is supposed to be Duke Philip's overlord for the lands he possesses in France. Bruges in Flanders is a world centre of trade and finance, dealing across the narrow Channel with England and Scotland (although England is embroiled in its war between Yorkist and Lancastrian). Bruges houses merchants from the republics of Venice and Genoa and from the bits of Spain that are not under Saracen rule. It lodges a branch of the House of Medici, whose head, Cosimo de' Medici, is the power in my ancestral city of Florence. It deals with representatives of Pope Pius in Rome, and the war-worried Kingdom of Naples and the prosperous Duchy of Milan, whose Duke Francesco Sforza is so anxious to win Genoa from the French. It sends goods as far away as Constantinople and Asia Minor, because it likes the luxuries it imports in return, and has moreover a need for Asian alum, the powder which fixes dye into cloth. Aries is, of course, the sign of the wool merchant.
It is a pity that, intelligent as he is, Niccol? should have made so many mistakes while living in Bruges. The worst has threatened his wife and her business. He has antagonised a powerful Scottish nobleman, and must leave Bruges until the danger has lessened. But for me, he would have joined his wife's mercenary troop somewhere in Italy. It is I who have placed before him another prospect, brilliant as the Fleece, and in the same far-off country of legend.
Seven years ago, Constantinople fell before the Sultan Mehmet, and its Byzantine Emperor died. The other European lands of Byzantium were all in time overrun by these Ottoman Turks, my own Greek possessions included. There remained only one spangle of the exquisite culture which had survived for so long at the meeting-place of the West and the Orient, preserving the finest of both. This was the Empire of Trebizond, a garden on the southern coast of the Black Sea, no more than forty miles deep and the worth of three to four days journeying from one end to the other. There ruled the Emperor David of the Byzantine family of the Comneni, a dynasty of legendary beauty and wealth which had survived for two hundred years against the enemy tribes at its frontiers, sometimes through war; sometimes through diplomacy; sometimes through marriage.
The Emperor David of Trebizond, reports said, was sending a merchant to the West seeking Florentine trade, and offering to house a Florentine agency. I put it to Niccol?, whom the Flemings call Nicholas: what had he to lose? He required to leave Bruges. He required to put his talents to use, otherwise his wife and her business would suffer. Where better than Trebizond? At least, he should take some companions and go to Florence and meet the Emperor's emissary.
He agreed. He has, I believe, no idea what is really going to happen. He may arrive in Florence and decide the longer journey is not worth the trouble. He may prove to be less exceptional than I think him to be. He may be more than I think him, and defeat me. But no. That is impossible.
Let us see, then-beginning with an event which appears to have very little to do with him at all. I shall not address you again, although I shall be present. I am still present, in the Registrum Magni Sigilli Regum Scotorum, The Register of the Great Seal of Scotland, where they call me Nicholai Georgei de Arcassoune, Grecus cum pede ligneo. My name is in fact Nicholai Giorgio de' Acciajuoli. I have a wooden leg. Niccol? broke it at our first meeting. He is making amends.
CATHERINE DE CHARETTY, having chosen a lover just after the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (a festival highly regarded in Bruges), was much put out to learn that, at nearly thirteen, she did not possess all the required qualifications. She began immediately praying for puberty. She prayed through her plans for elopement and, indeed, for a quite inconvenient period afterwards. The power of prayer, she had been taught, was invincible. By the time she and Messer Pagano Doria were beyond the reach of her mother, she would be (but surely) all woman.
Messer Pagano Doria thought she was one already. That had emerged at a critical stage of his courtship, and was one of the many things she liked him for. Another was his long eyelashes. Another was his regular teeth. Another was the expensive handkerchief he always tucked in the belt of his doublet, but never blew his nose on. She liked him for all these things even before he began calling on her aunt's house at Brussels, and then started asking her aunt and uncle and her cousins and herself out for supper, or to fish with him, or to join a party for fowling.
Sometimes he brought his own hounds and his own servants, all with the family crest on their livery. Sometimes he brought a little black page, who wore a turban and carried his falcon. Sometimes he came alone. At first, he hardly seemed to notice her there at his elbow, admiring his teeth and his tales about the Moorish princes in Spain who had three hundred ladies to sleep with; and the Genoese lords in the East who were much sought-after, too. Messer Pagano Doria was a sea prince of the best Genoese family there had ever been, and rich enough to be buying a round ship at Antwerp. Messer Pagano Doria had been everywhere.
Her aunt and uncle were flattered by the attentions of someone so well connected. They were not truly relations of hers: just business friends who had helped her mother through early widowhood, and had offered to take one of her daughters into their household to be polished. Catherine de Charetty thought you could get polished quite as well in a dyeshop in Bruges as in a wool merchant's mansion in Brussels, but her mother thought not. Her mother would be much against Catherine taking a lover, but her mother had a man in her bed. Or had, before Nicholas left. On a long trip. On a matter of commerce, everyone said.
Her mother wouldn't have let Messer Pagano Doria come so often, because her mother always knew when Catherine had found a new attachment. Catherine was conscious of the power of love. Her confidence was not misplaced. In time, the lord Pagano Doria rewarded her with some of his delightful attention. While speaking he would smile at her and touch her cheek sometimes, so that her eyes crossed as she looked at his rings. He had better rings than the Bruges under-manager of the Medici company. Once he took her hand at a difficult place in the marshes and once, laughing and talking to everybody, he let her sit beside him in the cart going home.
They first began to become close at the jousting in the Grand Place when the cousins who had set out with her somehow got lost. Instead of joining the crowds, Messer Pagano and she walked about the streets and the markets, the river bank and the wharves, and never stopped talking. She heard all about London and Lisbon and Rome and Sardinia and Ragusa and Chios and Damascus and Constantinople. All the wonderful lands he had lived in. He talked about animals with tails front and behind, and rubies bigger than racket balls, and flowers whose one petal would scent a whole palace.
His clean, pink fingertips described things as he talked; or steered her shoulder; or attracted her attention by tickling her palm. She ate spicy pastries he bought from stalls for her, and consumed unknown drinks, fibbing when she disliked them. When he took her home, she wanted to embrace him from joy and from gratitude, and he smiled, seeing it, and held out his arms for a hug. His warm arms and his big, firm kiss reminded her of her father, except that Cornelis de Charetty was old when he died, and didn't have skin like a rose-scented cushion, or wear dark pleated satin that slid under your touch. The lord Pagano's hair under his feathered cap was dark and satiny too, but she daren't touch that.
That was how it began. There followed four days of unexplained absence; days of mourning. Then he sent his black page to her aunt. It proved to be nothing. He had to entertain some kinsman or other: would the family help? Catherine wasn't mentioned at all. When the evening came, he hardly addressed her. It was only at their return that, dragging behind in the darkness, she became aware that he had held back as well. Then he said, "But a tear, my sweet Caterinetta! No, no! I cannot bear that!" And his arm came warmly round her waist and he kissed the tear away, and then her mouth. Then her aunt called from inside the house and he smiled, and turned away to his lodgings.
The next meeting she arranged herself, and the two after that, alone with him. Not completely alone. In a park, or by the canal, or down on the shore, with their hoods over their faces, since it was autumn. Each time, he scolded her and told her he ought to take her back to her aunt, but he didn't. The second time, he kissed her when they met as well as when they went away. The third time, he brought her a present. It was a little ring with a carbuncle in it, and a lace to string it on. She was to wear it tucked into her gown, in case her cousins were jealous. It had belonged to his mother, who would have thought of her as a little daughter had she lived. Catherine tied the ring in place herself although he offered to help. She knew, even then, that he believed her chest to be prettier than it was.
That day, he was tired from buying his ship, and they sat down almost at once under a tree in the orchards not far from Ste Gudule, and stayed there until nearly dusk. To keep her from cold, he wrapped half his splendid cloak round her shoulders, and kept her hands warm in his. She watched him all the time that he talked, and admired his buttons, and when she wanted to stroke the fur of his collar he let her provided, he said, she would allow him reciprocal privileges.
It was as exciting as he made it sound: he held her close with one hand and reached under her hood with the other to pull forward her long, hard-brushed hair, one swathe on each side of her neck. Then he combed it all smooth with his fingers, arranging it over her chest and forward down to her lap. She had nice hair: longer than Tilde's, although Tilde was older. She sat still and let him stroke it like that for a little. After a bit he said, "Caterinetta. You are a lovely woman. You are a woman, aren't you?"
She had been overwhelmed, and surprised. "Of course I am!"
He looked very serious.
She must have smiled out of nervousness, for his face suddenly changed. He heaved a sigh and, bending his head, dropped a little kiss on her throat through the modesty gauze. "I'm glad. I'm glad, Caterinetta; for a Doria lord . . . you know a Doria lord could never show his love to a child. It would be against the family honour."
Then it had come to her what he had meant. She dismissed it. She heard herself repeating, "Love?" Then she couldn't say anything else, because he lifted his mouth from her chest and put his lips on her lips and pressed them heavily, with his arm tight round her shoulders.
It was stifling, but she knew what it was. It was the kind of kissing that Nicholas and her mother did. She wanted him to stay like that till she got used to it. Instead, her mouth opened, spoiling everything. She tried to shut it again, but the weight was too much. She felt her teeth were exposed. She might even bite him. She drew off and so did he, quickly. He let his hands go. He said, "Of course it's too soon. It's wrong and too soon. Let me take you home."
She was too appalled even to cry. She said, "It wasn't my fault. It wasn't. You can do it again."
"Don't you think I want to?" he said. "Princess, I want more than that. But after next week, you won't see me. And by the time I come back, many years may have passed."
She was seized by a cramp in her stomach. She said, "You're sailing."
He nodded. "To Italy first, then who knows where? My greatest adventure, I think. And I have to make it alone."
"Take me with you," she said.
She could see the shock on his face, and an exquisite longing. Then he said, "No. No, how could I? There's no time for a betrothal, far less for a contract of marriage. Your aunt has no powers: I couldn't send to your mother in time. I can't take you, my loveliest girl, although I'd give a ransom to do it. I can't even see you again. I mustn't. I would go too far: I couldn't help it. And then you would hate me."
Madonna Caterina de Charetty negli Doria.
"You want to marry me?" Catherine said. She had to look down, for he was kneeling before her, his cap off, his warm, satiny head on her knee.
"I want you to be my lady wife. I want to show you the world. I want to spend Christmas at your side and show you to the princes of Florence," said Messer Pagano Doria in a whisper. "But how can it be?"
Excerpted from The Spring of the Ram by Dorothy Dunnett. Copyright © 1999 by Dorothy Dunnett. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, 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.