Milan, Italy, Anno Domini 1470
In a nobleman’s palazzo on a night in late spring, a girl hurried through the deserted hallways of the servants’ quarters. She was just eighteen, and within the frame of the shawl wrapped around her head and shoulders her face was pale and beautiful. In her hand she clutched a pouch of coins.
She reached the kitchen, where the stoves were banked and the tables scrubbed clean for the night. On tiptoe, she stole across the red tile floor, careful not to wake the scullery maids sleeping on the benches, and slipped through the door to the kitchen garden.
The moon, nearly full, poured silver light across the empty vegetable beds and stretched her shadow out beside her. She hurried along the brick pathway that split the garden in half, heading for the outer wall. There, beneath a vine-twined pergola, waited the man the girl had come to meet: the astrologer Marcantonio Gentili, who like her was a servant of Count Federico di Assulo Borromeo, owner of the palazzo and everything in it.
“Do you have what I paid you for?” the girl asked, her voice shaking a little despite her effort to keep it steady.
“You haven’t paid me yet.” The hood of the astrologer’s cloak was pulled up over his head. His eyes glinted a little within its shadow.
The girl held out the pouch of coins. The astrologer took it, then, from inside his cloak, produced a wooden scroll case and placed it in her hand.
A metal cap closed the case at one end, attached by a little chain. The girl pulled it off. Enough moonlight filtered through the leafless vines for her to see the roll of paper inside.
“Your daughter’s horoscope,” the astrologer said. “Cast and drawn as carefully as I would for any of the count’s children, with commentary written out on the other side. I don’t suppose you can read, can you? I could tell you what it says. There’d be an extra fee.”
“I’ve already given you all my money.”
“There are other things you could give me.”
“Is that why you wanted to meet me at night in the kitchen garden, when I could just as well have come to your study in the daytime?” Anger made the girl step toward him. “Suppose I tell the count what you just said?”
“Do you think he would care?”
“He might,” she said, though she knew it was a lie.
“Ah Clara, pretty Clara. If you truly think you have influence over our esteemed master just because he got a child on you, you are not the clever girl I took you for. Besides, you’d have to confess that you commissioned a horoscope for your bastard daughter from the very man who charts the stars of your lover’s legitimate children. Wouldn’t that be a shame, considering how much extra you paid me to keep it secret?”
“Not secret from him. From his wife. As you well know.”
Perhaps it was the bitterness in the girl’s voice that made the astrologer relent a little. “It’s a surprising horoscope. Your daughter has a gift girls are not usually born with. The stars show the possibility of a path for her that women do not ordinarily take. It all depends on the choices she makes, of course, but if they are good ones, she may be remembered after her death.”
The girl’s hands tightened on the scroll case. “It’ll be a good life, then.”
“I didn’t say that.” The astrologer’s lips curved in an unkind smile. “Take comfort, though. You won’t be there to witness your daughter’s trials. Or her triumphs.”
For a long moment the girl stood silent, her head bowed. From beyond the garden came the call of an owl. The moonlight dimmed as clouds passed above. At last she raised her eyes to the astrologer’s.
“I understand.” Her face was calm. “You have my money. I won’t thank you.”
She turned to go, straight and slender in her plain servant’s dress and shawl.
“If you change your mind about that reading, just knock on my door,” the astrologer called after her.
The moon was bright again. She walked on as if she hadn’t heard.
She retraced her steps through the kitchen and the hallways. Reaching her tiny room, she slipped softly inside. A lantern burned on the table beside the bed, its flame casting a warm glow across the coverlet and the baby sleeping there, wrapped in swaddling clothes so that only her plump little face showed.
“Look what I got you, Giulia,” the girl whispered, laying the scroll case down beside her child. “Now you’ll know what the stars foretell for you. You won’t have to live your life blind, never knowing when disaster will fall, letting good things slip away because you don’t recognize them when they come to you, making mistake after mistake till you end up in a little room at the bottom of a big house, with only the favor of the man who seduced you between you and starvation.” Gently, she drew her finger across the baby’s cheek. “You have a gift, little Giulia. The astrologer said so. I wonder what it is?”
But the astrologer had said other things as well, and the girl didn’t sleep that night for thinking about them.