Elizabetta lifted the skirt of her dress high to keep it from becoming muddied as she hefted a basket of laundry and made her way to the shore of the Tiber. The idea of the Sabbath as a day of rest seemed almost laughable as she mentally reviewed the list of tasks she needed to complete before returning to the Vatican for the night. As one of the maids assigned to see to the rooms occupied by Lucrezia Borgia and her infant son she occupied an enviable place among the staff but all of them had been working to the point of exhaustion over the past weeks in preparation for the wedding. Although she was only 19 years old her hands were rough from work and her joints ached at night.
She had served the family since she was a young girl, beginning at the house of Vanozza Cattaneo. Her mother had been a close friend of Vanozza's cook and it had seemed an ideal place for her to earn her keep, especially since the tiny house she had been born in was so full of her siblings that there was never enough for to eat. Her mother had been so proud to have her daughter in an honored position in the cool, spacious hall of the former courtesan. It had helped to spare her from the fever when it made the annual visit to the cramped houses of Rome.
When she closed her eyes at night she could still see the face of her mother as she lay dying all those years before, hugely pregnant and trying to live long enough to birth the child and failing. Betta's brothers had joined their mother in the weeks that followed. Her father had begun drinking himself into a stupor every night after that and without the assistance of his younger daughter, Ginevra, his meager income from repairing shoes would have vanished altogether as he spent more and more time with the bottle. He had only descended farther into darkness since, as the alcohol seemed to eat away all that was left of the good man she remembered from her childhood. He had tried to rape Ginevra recently, and she had only just been able to fight him off. When her sister had told her what had happened Betta waited until her father was well into his cups and hit him in the head with a cooking pot. When he came to he was trussed like a boar and Betta held a knife to his manhood and explained what would happen if he ever touched his daughter again. Father and oldest daughter had circled around each other like wary predators since then. Betta came home from the palace on Sabbath to worship and help her sister but when her sister left the house to be married Betta doubted she would return. And Ginevra would marry, Betta promised herself. The baker had promised to accept her as his son's wife if a sufficient dowry was provided. Ginevra would be happy with the man's gentle son, Betta was sure. And then she would no longer have to worry about protecting the girl from their father. She only had to find enough coin.
"Elizabetta," A girl hailed her when she arrived at the river. Laura, the daughter of her mother's sister, had entered into womanhood recently. She had the dark brown hair and sloe eyes of her family and the slim, high breasted appeal of youth. Betta could well imagine that her aunt was besieged by suitors.
"Cousin. How does this morning find you?"
"Very well. I was hoping that I could speak to you today."
"About what?" Betta already knew why her cousin had sought her out this day. It was not the first time that members of her family had asked her for help finding a place at the palace after seeing the generosity of her mistress. Betta touched the sleeve of the shirt that showed beneath the serviceable wool gown that she wore every day. The fine linen had been a castoff from Lady Lucrezia and its silkiness was a caress on her skin.
"Could you help me find service at the Vatican?"
Farther down the river an argument was steadily gaining volume, much to the amusement of the spectators. The wife of the tanner was loudly accusing a woman who served in one of the great houses of splattering her clean clothes with mud as they lay drying on the bank. The tanner's wife had massive, muscular arms and Betta suspected that the servant would soon find herself as sodden as the clothes. It would not be the first time she had dealt with a rival in this fashion.
Betta thought of all the possible reasons she could give her cousin for refusal. There were so many dangerous secrets floating around the Vatican these days and she would not willingly subject one of her blood to the snake pit that was the heart of Christendom. The normal pitfalls of service were there, of course. Three of the servant girls had been dismissed recently when they were found to be selling their bodies to the envoys from Venice and France. A slave had been hung when he was found thieving and pretty young girls were forced to leave as their pregnancies became obvious. But none of these things seemed as dangerous as her newly acquired knowledge about the Pope's children. Many people suspected they were lovers. Betta knew it for certain.
There had always been gossip about the pair, from before the time that their father had become Pope. They were constantly touching, and the casual caress of his hand down her hair or the way her hands lingered on his chest seemed to imply a greater intimacy then was normal between a brother and sister. She had seen the Lady watching the Cardinal walk in his tight leather clothing, as indeed all women who saw him attired thus watched him. To the serving maids the sight of the Cardinal's ass as he walked through the Vatican seemed absolute proof of the existence of a benevolent God. And Lord Cesare looked at no one with more passion and devotion than his sister. Watching the beautiful offspring of the Holy Father was one of the favorite activities of the Vatican servants. The rumors about the two were especially prevalent now. One of the workers in the armory swore he saw them kissing just a few days ago. Betta had initially dismissed the idea that they were lovers but then she had seen them locked in an embrace a few days before.
She had been wiping down the furniture in one of the rooms with scented oil in preparation for the wedding of Lady Lucrezia to Prince Alfonso of Naples when the Lord Cesare had entered the room. She bowed and left with Gregorio the page but they had remained at the door, peeking through the crack. The pair seemed to be arguing and their words were muffled. Her lady had started to cry and then she was in his arms and Lord Cesare was kissing her like he was dying of thirst and she was the only water left in the world.
Gregorio had met her eyes and without speaking they went to the next room that needed to be readied for the wedding. To be seen watching this moment would bring death, of that there was no doubt. Betta had seen Gregorio whispering to the other servants afterwards but she held her tongue. Let that fool put his own neck in the noose, she thought scornfully.
Betta had helped to lace the Lady into her wedding finery and placed the beautiful golden slippers on the ground for her to step into. Such lovely shoes, made of silk and calf leather ornamented with pearls. The lady had been more radiant than ever as she left to be married, and it seemed as though she would live happily with her prince, like one of the stories that the minstrels told. She had worked after the wedding feast was over, helping to tidy the mess that the revelers had left behind when she saw the same shoes left carelessly in the hall that led to Lord Cesare's rooms. Incredulous, Betta had crept to the door and listened. The moaned "Lucrezia" followed by the wet slap of flesh on flesh had sent Betta scurrying to her narrow pallet in terror. In the morning she had sought to return the shoes to her mistress before anyone was the wiser but she had the misfortune to arrive just as the lady had returned to her chamber with swollen lips and hair disheveled by a night of passion. Lady Lucrezia had not spoken but her eyes had been exceedingly sharp as she beheld the shoes clutched in Betta's hand.
The splash of the water and the voluble shrieks of the two women down the river brought Betta out of her musing. Her cousin was looking at her expectantly.
"I have a friend that manages the Contarini household. She will find you a place if I ask her. The Vatican is not a safe place right now." Betta smiled at her cousin to lessen the sting of her words, and drew her into an animated conversation about the boys that followed her around like flies. When the day had begun to darken she walked with her cousin home before returning to the home of her father to prepare a simple meal. With the day drawing to a close she began the journey back to the palace.
"You serve the Lady Lucrezia, do you not?" The man who spoke to her as she walked through the streets kept his face in the shadows.
"Don't lie girl. There are some who would pay for any information that you could pass along."
"Pay what, sir?"
"Gold perhaps, should the information be of sufficient worth. Enough for a dowry for you or your sister, Elizabetta." The man's voice rasped on her ears, cold like a snake. She did not need the deadly promise of the man's voice to fill her with any more fear. Her instincts were screaming at her to run. This man knew who she worked for and who she was.
"A dowry or gold! How splendid. I am sure a dowry would do me much good when I was found floating in the Tiber. Go to hell. I keep the secrets of my lady." Betta spit the words at him, her quick temper flaring with the fear. She kept to the center of the street as she turned and sprinted back to the palace. Her heart was jumping like a deer being pursued in the hunt and she expected to feel a cold hand grasp her arm at any moment. When she reached the safety of the palace walls she immediately sought out the Holy Father's daughter.
"My lady." Betta approached Lucrezia and knelt on the floor as the hairdresser wove her long golden hair into an elaborate coiffure. The lady wore a splendid dress but it could not disguise the sadness in her eyes. "If I could speak to you."
Lucrezia motioned the other woman away and gazed at Betta expectantly. "My lady I fear there is danger. A man spoke to me when I came home this night. He offered me gold or a dowry to tell him about you."
"And how did you answer him?" Lucrezia's voice was very quiet.
"I told him that I keep your secrets and then I ran back to the palace."
Lucrezia studied the face of the one before her. This girl knew far too much. "Why did you not take the gold? Many do."
"My lady, I have served your family faithfully for many years. Some people think that because I am a poor woman that I do not understand honor but I do. It would dishonor me to gossip like a streetwalker about those who have shown me nothing but kindness. And.." she trailed off.
"And?" The perfect eyebrows lifted in enquiry.
"Those who play those games rarely live long, my lady."
A servant I can trust, Lucrezia thought in suprise. I will have to thank Micheletto for arranging this. "A dowry you said. For yourself?"
"My sister, lady. She wishes to marry."
Lucrezia Borgia stood up and went to a chest where she kept a small amount of coin. "I will provide a suitable dowry for your sister in return for your continued discretion in all things. And your…help, should the need ever arise. Do you understand?"
Betta's heart leapt into her chest. "M..my lady." She stammered in gratitude. "I will do anything you ask. Bless you. " She was very close to tears as she pictured her sister's face at this news.
Lucrezia Borgia accepted the gratitude with a smile. "How do you feel about Naples?"