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Chapter 2

A villa in the Tuscan countryside

Violetta looked around the salon where she was sitting a few feet away from Tuscany’s ruler. Because it was hers—well, her mother’s—and not the duke’s, the salon was small and not lavishly furnished. Still, she thought the paintings on the walls were quite nice. Her mother had always been willing to splurge a bit on the artists they employed, while they scrimped elsewhere.

Stop avoiding this, she told herself sternly. It required some exertion of will, but she forced herself to give her uncle a level and—she hoped—reasonably calm gaze.

Well, in truth he was a second cousin, but he had always been Uncle Cosimo to her. She should be quaking, but she had decided long ago that she did not approve of such behavior. Her mother would have been: she ascribed more power to Cosimo than to the devil himself, and with only slightly less malice. It was not a side of himself he had showed Violetta, up until now. But she would try to use as much tact as possible.

It would be difficult, though. She was, by nature, far too inclined to say exactly what she thought.

“No,” she said. “I will not marry him, Uncle Cosimo.”

His eyebrows raised, but only the outer edge, making him look rather like the devil her mother said he could be. “Is there perhaps some reason, Violetta?”

“You and mother did not provide me with an appropriate instructor of poisons, Uncle. So I would be obliged to use something unsubtle. Just think of the terrible embarrassment that would cause the family. And he is probably—as an experienced condottiere—not easy to slip a knife into. So it would be unsubtle and probably messy. Not at all the image the de’ Medici seek to cultivate.”

Cosimo’s face betrayed little that he did not want to show, but she thought he was amused. That was a good start. “I am surprised, little one. I would have thought martial vigor would have helped his case.”

“It does. Just not enough to cover a multitude of other sins.”

Little one! Indeed! Well, it was more flattering than “Butterball,” but not at all accurate. Not for some years now.

“Suitors without sins are few on the ground, Violetta.”

She sat up straighter in the chair, trying to look as self-assured as possible. “I am not in a hurry to marry, and even less so to marry a man who would marry a midden if it gave him a legitimate claim to the Duchy of Milan,” she said, forgetting her resolve to be tactful.

He raised his eyebrows at her forthright speech, but replied calmly: “It would also give you a great deal, my dear. I doubt, beside the formalities, he would have any interest in you. However, you would become a duchess, and be able to buy a great many more books.”

“You’re a better temptress than my mother. She talked about jewelry and fine dresses. And feasts.”

“Which you would enjoy, too.”

“Which I like, of course. Too much. It’s why they call me ‘Butterball’ behind my back.”

“The raw garlic you have been eating would probably get you a less flattering name, Violetta. Dragon breath, perhaps. But there is a political aspect to this, and as head of the House, I ask you to reconsider,” said Cosimo. “There is potential advantage not only for the de’ Medici, but also for Florence and Tuscany. Sometimes we do not what we wish, but do what is needed of us.”

She’d been afraid it would come to this. It was a lot harder than jewels and dresses. Harder too than books or even food…which she did love more than the jewels or dresses. “I do not believe,” she said slowly, “that it is of that great a value. In fact I think it would bring us into conflict with Venice, with the Holy Roman Empire, and also possibly Rome. Don’t think I don’t understand, Uncle. Or that I set myself as more valuable than the family. That is part of the reason I refused. That and the dislike of being little more than a stamp of legitimacy for a man who is a usurper. He who would take that step would value the de’ Medici not at all. He would use us and betray us.”

Cosimo sighed. “Your mother wrote that you were merely being mulish. I had my doubts about that. She does not think women can comprehend politics. How she reconciled that with having met my mother and sister is beyond me. You know, and I know, that we do not marry to please ourselves. I have had similar thoughts about his actions, Violetta. But, to be honest with you, I can see no real difference in Carlo Sforza’s behavior with, or without, his marriage to you. And I can see some possible advantage for you. You are twenty-four years of age, long past the typical age of marriage, have, to be honest, little in the way of inheritance, and besides the Visconti relationship, little in the way of value as a dynastic marriage. You are a second cousin, and there are de’ Medici that would seem of more value to the outsider. They do not know, or care, how fond I am of you. It would be a position of wealth and power, and thus good for you.”

He gave one of his infamous twisted smiles. “Especially if he dies, which, even if you are not a skilled poisoner, military men do.”

“How cheerful,” said Violetta, giving him her own twisted rictus of a smile in return. “You say: ‘Marry him, Violetta. You may soon be a widow.’ Uncle Cosimo…I can only see war coming for Milan. He has not a friend to turn to, and his enemies will not chance him being able to devour them one by one. They won’t rest until the Duchy of Milan is torn into gobbets, and the winner of the city will take his widow, especially if she has a claim to the Visconti bloodline. And wouldn’t it be nice if it were Count Andrea Malatesta, as seems not unlikely,” said Violetta grimly.

Cosimo was silent for a while, pacing. Finally he said: “You do manage to paint the most unattractive pictures in my mind, Violetta.”

“Yes, and you can be sure Malatesta would use the lever you gave him, and be even more sure to keep me out of striking distance of his exquisite person.”

“That does suppose they can unite against Sforza. I may tell you I have had approaches. Not from Malatesta, of course. Parma and others, but it was obvious to me he would be in the alliance—and better within than without. But I have heard rumors that Venice is being neutral. That could change the entire picture. It is a very fluid game, and Sforza is, if nothing else, a master of applied force.”

“Venice will not sit out when the others threaten to devour their northern borders. And there is no love lost there. The people of Venice would be demanding war, too.”

Cosimo nodded in agreement. “You know, Violetta, you are wasted as a woman. You would have made a great condottiere.”

She snorted. “Most condottieri would have made poor women. They have far more resources, and they still lose. Usually with great expense and noise.”

“With the general exception of Carlo Sforza. In a way, I am glad the two of you do not make a marriage. It another way, though, it is a pity. I rather liked him, the time that I met him. A blunt, powerful man.”

“Not precisely a nobleman,” she said, with an instinctive lift of the chin.

“No. But then neither were we, not many generations ago, although we pretend otherwise. Andrea Malatesta is, though.”

“You also paint the most unattractive pictures in my mind, Uncle Cosimo. What do we do now? Sforza will take offense, and make that an excuse, I think.”

Uncle Cosimo was a great deal better at business than he was at warfare, reflected Violetta. It was a good thing he tried to avoid it. She had studied Sforza’s history, as much of it was known, long before his unattractive proposal came. She enjoyed the reading of military tactics, which was just as well, because there was more of it than any other form of writing, besides the ecclesiastic, which had less appeal to her. It also irritated her mother, which, Violetta had to admit, was something of a reward.

He shrugged. The gesture did not exactly project indifference, but something fairly close. While Tuscany’s ruler was not going to treat Sforza in a cavalier manner, he was certainly not terrified of him, either. Cosimo de’ Medici didn’t have the military skills—and certainly not the fearsome reputation—of the Wolf of the North. What he did possess, however, was lots and lots of money, with which he could and had hired very capable mercenaries and even more capable designers and builders of fortresses. Tuscany was the proverbial tough nut to crack.

“I will play for time, of course,” he said. “Then, with luck, he will attack someone else, probably Parma, which will spur the forming of an alliance against him. I want no part in yet another expensive war, but I think we will have no choice.”

Her mother was not going to be pleased. Mother had dreamed, somehow, of that romantic marriage, despite what it had brought to her. She was a widow of almost no means, thanks to her father’s disastrous military venture and her own decision to marry against the family wishes. If it had not been for Cosimo, they would not have had the moderate comfort of a country villa and the small estate that went with it. If Cosimo had insisted, Violetta would have had to accede to his wishes.

She was grateful he had not. Grateful, and yet sad, somehow. She would like to see more of the world than just the view across the vineyards and, on all too infrequent occasions, the city of Florence. It was just too far for a comfortable day’s travel, there and back. That made economic sense, but did leave them a little lonely and isolated—a little too noble for most of the local landowners, and a great deal too poor for life in a great house in the city. The food was good, and plentiful, and Uncle Cosimo saw to her getting quite a large number of books. He took perverse pleasure in that, it seemed. If his wife Catherine could read, she never did. She had no interest in what she termed with a sneer “men’s boring doings,” but devoted herself to fashion, music, and grand entertainments, to which they were sometimes invited. Violetta’s mother bemoaned the expense, and reveled in the experience. Violetta found them dull, as did her uncle, judging from the mechanical civility he displayed at the events. She had seen him animated only in philosophical discussion, and in talking of books or politics.

He had married, as a dutiful son should, for the family.

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