The Ducal Council Chamber of Volterra was a sea of grave and stony faces.
"Iacapao DiLoncello has seventeen hundred men!" lamented the Captain of the guard. "It will be a slaughter."
"Four to one," the Duke agreed gravely. "But our walls will hold."
"For how long?" asked his Chief Steward. "We cannot outlast a siege forever. And if he takes control of the water supply..."
Andrea, the Duke's eldest son, squirmed nervously in his seat. He was two weeks shy of eighteen; he had only just been permitted to join the Council meetings, and he found that all they did was give him nightmares.
His mother, the Duchessa, glanced at him, sensing her son's unease. "He has children of his own, does he not? Is this the world he wants them to inherit?"
"Of course not," said the Duke. "He wants them to inherit a world where the House of Loncello controls all of Toscana, too. You've met Iacapao, cara mia, does he seem like the kind of man who listens to reason? In the blessed virgin's name, he shut his own daughter up in a tower."
There were murmurs around the room at this. The Duchessa shook her head. "Then we prepare for the worst," she replied. "But surely that does not mean we give up hope."
There was a knock at Nunzia DiLoncello's door.
"I don't see why you knock," she responded. "You're the one who has the key. Come in or don't; I don't care."
"Have you considered my proposal?" asked her father. "You haven't eaten in three days."
"I have three other sisters. Get one of them to marry a Sforza or a Medici or whoever it is you want to pawn me off on."
"Your sisters don't have your strength of will," said her father. "As evidenced by this most recent little stunt. You should be grateful I'm asking your permission."
"Coercing permission from me, is more like it," said Nunzia.
Her father chuckled. "Coercion? You have everything you could wish for. My only requirement is that you stay in this room until you either choose a husband or I receive a sign from the Heavenly Father himself to the contrary."
"Then I hope you receive a sign before I starve," Nunzia said nicely. "What kind of sign are you looking for?"
Her father was quiet for a moment. "A miracle."
"And if there is a miraculous sign," Nunzia said, cautiously. "Do you promise to release me?"
"For a miracle?" asked the Duke. "Yes, for a miracle, I promise."
The guard who approached the Duke of Loncello had the angst-ridden, twitchy expression of someone who expected to be sentenced to death at any moment.
"Your Grace," he said, keeping his eyes pointed at the floor. "There is a young man who wishes an audience. He says it is...in regard to your daughter's el-el-eligibility for marriage."
"And who is the young man?" asked the Duke
A smile spread slowly across the Duke's lips. He was silent for a long moment. A long, uncomfortable moment.
"W-what message shall I take him, Your Grace?" asked the guard.
"Tell him to come back tomorrow."
Nunzia whirled at the sound of the knock on her door. "I don't care what it is, I'm not eating it!" she snapped.
Her younger sister answered meekly. "Nunzi, it's Lucia," she said. "I came to check on you. And to...I thought you might want to know. Papa is plotting something."
Nunzia snorted. "When is he not plotting something?"
"Something new," said Lucia. "There's a new young man. He came today to ask for your hand. Andrea of Volterra."
Nunzia frowned. "Volterra? Papa wants to invade Volterra, and they send a marriage proposal? So what did Papa say?"
"He said he'd see him tomorrow. He wouldn't even put the young man up in the castle; he sent him outside the city to stay in the inn."
"That sounds like Papa," Nunzia said bitterly. "Thank you, Luci. I have to think about this. Oh," she added. "Tell Papa I will take a meal again."
Andrea, cloaked against the sharp winds that blew down the hills of Loncello, stood peering up at the silhouette of the dark tower against the deep midnight sky. He could see a pale light flickering in the window, and he squinted, trying to make out movement within, wondering about the girl imprisoned there.
He stood carefully hidden by a copse of trees and brambles. He dared not move closer; the tower was ringed by guards who were armed with swords and crossbows.
He heard a snap behind him- a twig breaking- and he turned to look at the source of the sound. Before he had a chance to see, there was a knife to his throat.
"Hands where I can see them," whispered a woman's voice into his ear. The scent of her filled his lungs: cinnamon, cloves and crushed velvet, and he drew his breath in deeply as he raised his hands to shoulder height. He saw the sparkling rings on her fingers as she slipped her hands into his pockets.
"No money?" she asked, a note of derision in her voice.
"It-it-it's back at the inn," he stammered. He managed to crane his neck to see her, but her face was hidden by a white silk scarf and a wide-brimmed hat.
Her knife pressed lightly against his back. "Take me there," she said, a sound like a cat's purr coming from the back of her throat.
Andrea stared at the way the bandit's trousers graced her slender legs; the fabric of her men's clothing betrayed the curves of her body in a way that a gown never could have, and he tried to stop himself with the reminder that she very well might kill him as soon as she had his gold.
Clumsily, he followed her instructions- and the urging of her blade- to scale the wall of the inn and enter his own room by way of the rooftop. She followed up after him, as agile as a cat.
His throat was paper-dry as he fumbled beneath his mattress for his purse and the few coins inside it.
"You are the young man from Volterra, are you not?" she asked. "The one they say is here to marry the Duke's daughter?"
He nodded. "Not that the Duke has yet deigned to see me," he replied.
"Better for you," said the bandit. "You do not want to be married to a woman like that."
Here, in the soft, flickering firelight of his room, he could see her deep brown eyes, large and rimmed with long lashes. "And what would a thief like you know about it?"
She removed her scarf, and then her hat, letting them fall to the floor, her raven locks spilling over her shoulders. "You are still young," she said, smiling rakishly at him. "Boys your age, they all think they want the same thing. A pretty princess, locked away in a tower. She reached for his hand, and led it up to trace the curve of her breast.
He swallowed hard, and stepped back. "I don't think-"
"You shouldn't think," she retorted, before she kissed him.
She stayed with him until just before dawn. When the sky began to turn from black to grey, she pried herself gently from his arms and dressed swiftly. She returned to him, bending down to kiss him one last time.
"I will come back tonight," she said. "If you are still here."
That afternoon, Iacapao DiLoncello agreed to see young Andrea. But the youth seemed distracted, dreamy, his attention far off even as he presented his suit.
"My daughter refuses to wed," the Duke of Loncello told Andrea. "You have a choice: you may accept her answer, or you may come back tomorrow and ask again."
Andrea nodded. "Then I will be back tomorrow."
That night, Andrea paced agitatedly across the floor of his room, well into the night, and just as he was about to give up hope, a breeze blew in through his window, and with it came his bandit once again. This time, he met her with eagerness and fervor, and they lay awake in each other's arms until he knew it was time for her to leave him again.
She rose from the bed, and he began to speak, but she put a finger to his lips. "No promises," she said. "No oaths. I know you are here to wed your maiden in a tower, or none at all, and I will not hold you to any fevered words of love that cannot be."
That day was the same as the day before, and then the day after was the same, and the day after that. It was soon a routine: Andrea would go to call on the Duke of Loncello. The Duke would tell him that his daughter refused to be wed, and he could come back the next day. And then Andrea would wait up half the night for his bandit to appear.
After two months, Iacapao DiLoncello's patience was wearing thin. "This is the last time, Nunzia," he told her, when he brought her her morning meal. "The boy from Volterra comes every day, asking for your hand. What do you say?"
There was a long silence.
"Nunzia?" the Duke repeated. "Are you even listening to me?"
"Of course I am, Papa," said Nunzia. "I'll meet him. Today."
It had been three nights since Andrea had seen his bandit, and he had long since given up any hope of moving the Duke or his elusive daughter. Truth be told, he had only stayed so long for the bandit girl, and now that there was no trace of her, he was wondering if he shoulder turn back for home.
So when Andrea arrived at the castle that day, he was taken by surprise when the Duke told him that he had arranged for a meeting.
It was lucky that he was sitting down when his bandit walked into the room, in a richly bejeweled gown.
He stood, of course, out of courtesy, and barely managed a bow to her, before her eyes met his, dancing with merriment, and she returned his bow with an elegant curtsey.
She took her seat. He took his seat.
"I understand you have come here with an offer of marriage," she said to him.
He nodded, unable to form words, barely able to even respond.
She shook her head. "I'm afraid I can't accept," she said. "You do not want to be married to a woman like me."
"But-" started Andrea.
"Believe me," she said softly, and then she gave him a very pointed look. "I think you should leave tomorrow."
Confounded and heartbroken, Andrea left the Duke's castle and returned to the inn. He very nearly left that very afternoon, but the innkeeper reminded him that the trip was very long and he would find himself in a most deserted spot at the very darkest time of night. Better to rest and get a fresh start in the morning, the innkeeper said.
Andrea did not know what he had done wrong- this was why his bandit had not returned, and never would! He could not sleep for it; he tossed and turned and agonized, at once over his lost love, and over the fact that with all this sleep lost, he would be in no shape to travel.
But at the very darkest time of night, a familiar figure appeared in his window.
He leapt from his bed. "What makes you think I want to see you now?" he demanded of her.
She put a finger to her lips, even as she removed her hat and scarf. "Shh," Nunzia whispered. "Do you want the whole house to hear?"
She nodded to the bed. "Sit down," she said. "You deserve an explanation. An explanation you will get."
He sat, but still he protested. "But I love you," he said. "Why would you refuse me?"
She shook her head, and sat beside him, taking his hand in hers. "You don't love me," she said. "You don't know me. I meant it, when I said you don't want to be married to a woman like me."
"Why not?" he asked.
She took a deep breath. "If you marry me, you will never escape my father's grasp. He wants your city, he wants Volterra so he can use it to conquer the rest of Toscana. Do you see? If you marry me, he will use me to keep his claws in your father's city."
"But you could leave," said Andrea, pleadingly. "You could be free."
"I wouldn't be free," she said. "My freedom would always be at the hands of some man. My father, my husband. I would resent you for it, in the end. And I'll be free anyway," she said, and she moved away from him, back toward the window. "My father made me a promise, that I would be released when I agreed to wed, or when the Lord sent him a miraculous sign."
"And what?" asked Andrea. "Don't tell me you're depending on a miraculous sign," he said. It took all of his effort not to rise, not to go to her and beg her to come with him.
She smiled then, tipping her head as she regarded him, not without affection. "I've been locked in a tower for two months, and my father has the only key," she pointed out. "I think he'll have to accept a virgin birth."
"A-" But before the implications of her statement fully dawned on Andrea, she was gone into the night for the last time.