“Portrait of a Courtesan” by Megan Arkenberg
I found him blindfolded, naked and kneeling at the foot of the bed. It had been done with an artist’s eye, the scarlet silk of the blindfold just a trace darker than his lips, and his lips a half-shade deeper than the flush his skin was just pale enough to show. The blindfold pinned his dark hair behind the sharp relief of his cheekbones. On the worst of days, Arcangelo Melandroni was beautiful; Donna Isabel de’ Purgatoria could make him pass for a god.
“My lady?” he said.
“If you mean Donna Isabel, she slipped out a quarter hour ago.” How very like Isabel to leave her courtesan bound and waiting. It did not matter to me, of course; clients paid by the hour, and if Arcangelo was excited by the whole performance, that was his own affair. “If you mean me,” I added, “I’ll have to thank the dear woman for teaching you manners.”
Arcangelo laughed, and the illusion of tense expectation vanished as he slouched back against the mattress. “It’ll take more than a blindfold to teach me manners, Fillide.”
“Do you know when Isabel is coming back?”
“There’s a man here to see you.”
Arcangelo ripped the blindfold off and flung it aside, glancing around the bedroom as if he thought I’d brought the visitor in with me. But no, I corrected myself – if he thought a stranger was present, he would have continued the conversation without missing a beat.
“Handsome?” he asked.
“Enough,” I said, though in seven years as Arcangelo’s pimp I’d never learned what he considered attractive. “But he’s an artist, mio caro. He wants to paint you, not screw you. Get dressed.”
Arcangelo gave a theatrical sigh and followed my order as minimally as possible, slipping into a pair of trousers before following me down into Palazzo Corballini’s parlor.
The artist was waiting on a divan by the window. Though I had not lied in calling him handsome enough, the sunlight did not flatter him, catching the bruise-purple skin beneath his eyes and the dull gray strands in his dark hair. His clothes were fine but threadbare, and I could see the mended patches on the fingertips of his gloves as he stood and gave his hand to Arcangelo.
“Signore,” I said, “I present the infamous Arcangelo Melandroni. Arcangelo, this is the artist Ercole Calogero.”
“Charmed,” Arcangelo said.
Ercole kissed his knuckles and murmured, “Equally.”
With his usual flawless intuition, Arcangelo took Ercole’s place on the divan; the sunlight certainly flattered him. I excused myself for a moment to fetch drinks, and when I returned – with one full and two half-empty glasses of wine – Ercole had already sat on the floor at Arcangelo’s feet, staring helplessly at him like a starving man at a bowl of fruit.
We might not be needing the full wine glass, after all.
“I understand you want to paint Arcangelo, Signore Calogero,” I said, taking a seat as far away as I politely could.
“All of Remus wants to paint him,” Ercole said. “And I understand you’ve refused most of it.”
I gave Arcangelo a warning glare; this was business; it was my job to speak, his to look ravishing and irresistible. “I know the kind of men who become artists, signore. I grew up in the parish of San Sebastian della Freccia.”
Ercole glanced at me briefly. It was a confession, but not a particularly appalling one; most of the pimps in Remus came from the city’s underbelly, as did most of the artists. “Are you afraid for his virtue, signora?”
“He has a reputation – an expensive one. The courtesans who pose for artists are cheap.”
“I can pay well,” Ercole said. If he was flustered, it didn’t show on his face. I gestured for Arcangelo to serve the wine.
“How much?” I asked.
“Two hundred scudi.”
“Five hundred.” Ercole bit his lip. It was no small sum, and clearly the most he could afford.
I lifted the glass Arcangelo offered me by the rim. “Two thousand, signore.”
I didn’t know if Ercole had consciously kept a beggar’s pose on his knees, but I was certain Arcangelo knew when his voice sounded pleading. “Be reasonable, Fillide.”
“Reasonable?” I raised my eyebrows in only partly feigned shock. “Is it reasonable to sell your class for five hundred scudi?”
“I want to do this painting,” he said, stubborn and pleading at once, and I remembered how he had come to be the infamous Arcangelo Melandroni in the first place.
“I’ll be damned if I know how anyone can say no to you,” I sighed.
“Ask Donna Isabel,” he said, and smiled over his bare shoulder at Ercole. Ercole raised his eyebrows in smug triumph.
I hated him with a passion.
The next morning at ten, Arcangelo and I went down to Ercole’s studio in the parish of Santa Maddalena. It was not the worst neighborhood in Remus, but the fruit women’s wares were bruised and meager, and the ragged boys and girls in the alleyways did not hesitate to shout lewd offers as we walked past. I kept my hand on the dagger at my waist. Teenage whores were all well enough, but where children were earning pennies, you could be certain adult vultures were waiting to steal them.
“You’re lucky you’re so damn gorgeous,” I told Arcangelo. “A pimp took you up before you had to work the streets.”
“Did you ever work the streets?”
I spat in the gutter. “I pimped my first girl when I was fourteen. Stood at the mouth of an alley and advertised the best screw under two cents.”
“And before that?”
I twirled my dagger between my fingers and said nothing.
A half-flight of rain-worn steps led down to Ercole’s studio from the level of the street. I sent Arcangelo in before me and waited a moment in the gutter to be sure we weren’t followed. Any child from San Sebastian della Freccia knows the fastest road to money runs through a well-dressed man and a steep flight of stairs.
“Expecting someone?” Arcangelo called up, his voice sweet with irony. I leapt down the stairs, cuffed him playfully on the ear and slipped into the shop.
Rich whores and poor artists both work by half-light. As my eyes adjusted to the yellow gloom, I saw the ragged details most of Ercole’s customers would be too bright-accustomed to notice; the patches on the green brocade couch where the embroidery had run smooth, the worm-holed apples and bruise-colored raisins in the bowls of fruit.
“What kind of work do you think he does?” I asked.
Arcangelo smiled wryly. “Apparently, still life.”
I looked again at the nearest bowl of overripe fruit. I reached out to touch it.
It was a painting.
“Blessed Saints!” I swore. “Why would anyone paint something like that?” It was sordid, almost obscene. Bruised fruit could be bought at any market stall in the city. What kind of man would be vulgar enough to make it into art?
“I think it’s brilliant,” Arcangelo said.
Wooden stairs creaked somewhere in the darkness behind a bare half-length canvas, and I caught the tennis-court smell of old rags and stale sweat. Ercole paused at the edge of the canvas, his face half-shadowed. “I’m glad you think so,” he said softly.
Arcangelo spun towards him like a child at the voice of a favorite uncle – or something less innocent, which I would not allow myself to contemplate. “Where would you like me to sit, Signore Calogero?”
“Upstairs, where there’s more light.” Ercole’s left hand, the one not lost in shadow, swept towards the wooden staircase he had just descended. “And please, call me–”
“He will call you Signore Calogero,” I interrupted. “And he is Signore Melandroni to you.” I took a step closer to Arcangelo and laid my hand on the small of his back. “Go upstairs, tesoro. Your artist and I have something to discuss.”
Arcangelo rolled his eyes long-sufferingly and kissed me on the forehead, emphasizing the six-inch difference in our heights. It was a habit he’d adopted when I first took him up, when he was seventeen and I was twenty-six and height was the only thing in his favor. As he took the stairs to Ercole’s apartment two at a time, the artist watched contemplatively over his shoulder and murmured, “How do you say no to him?”
I cleared my throat, ignoring the question, and waited for Ercole to face me. “You’re not to do anything you haven’t paid for,” I said. “I know how artists behave toward their models.”
Ercole chuckled, gesturing to the cluttered studio behind me. “As you can see, I don’t do much of anything with my models.”
“You don’t paint figures?”
He sobered at once, his heavy eyebrows lowering over his slack eyelids. “I paint the souls of things, signora. There’s only one human soul in this city I can bear to look at.”
“You’re painting the most beautiful whore in Remus because you admire his soul.”
Ercole nodded as he walked to a wooden chest in one corner of the room, from which he withdrew a ringing bag of coins. My five hundred scudi, though I wondered where he had gotten it. I held out my hand and he dropped the bag soundly into my palm.
“Well, signore,” I said, “I can only wish you luck with that. May I ask how you plan to advance if you won’t paint figures?”
“There’s no money in fruit – bruised fruit, at that. All the commissions go to portraitists, history painters. Of course,” I knocked the money bag against a brownish peach in the nearest painting, “it would be difficult to paint the founding of Remus from life.”
“And why would I want to paint the founding of Remus?”
Genuine pity made my eyes crease at the corners. He wasn’t so poor, I supposed, as I had been. He hadn’t seen what could happen to orphans and beggars who wouldn’t sell themselves, or each other – to fools who thought it mattered what they wanted. “Surely you don’t plan to spend the rest of your life painting rotten fruit in a Santa Maddalena cellar?”
Ercole dragged his fingers through his thick gray-streaked hair. In his own house, he’d left off the much-mended gloves I’d noticed in Palazzo Corballini’s parlor; his hands were like an old man’s, liver-spotted and tough as leather. His face seemed older, too, his brown lips thinner, the wrinkles deeper and sharper around his eyes.
“I think you had better go,” he said.
For the first time in seven years, Arcangelo was becoming difficult to work with. He would wake at dawn and spend hours preparing to sit for Ercole – more time than he ever spent for his clients – bathing and spraying perfume, laboring over the clothes he would wear, applying kohl to his eyelids and carmine to his lips and even once demanding that I braid his hair in the complicated, flattering arrangement preferred by Don Verabaldi. I walked him to and from the parish of Santa Maddalena, and that was all I saw of him alone. During dinners and balls and theater-going with his clients, he seemed to deliberately avoid me.
“What are you doing with him?” I asked one afternoon as we walked home from Ercole’s studio. The day was cool and cloud-heavy, but sweat plastered curls of Arcangelo’s hair against his pale forehead. I knew what it took to make Arcangelo work up a sweat, and it was something more than posing for a portrait.
“We go on walks sometimes.” Arcangelo shrugged irritably. “He talks to me.”
About what? I wanted to ask, but knew better. I couldn’t charge Ercole for talking, and lately, Arcangelo had been suspicious if I seemed worried about anything but money. “He isn’t paying for you to be his bodyguard,” I said lightly. “Where do you walk?”
“Around. Places we should probably take a bodyguard, actually.” He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye. “Nowhere you’d like.”
“What wouldn’t I like?” I paused, catching him on the shoulder. I’d never had much respect for pimps who carried on with their courtesans in public, but the square was almost empty, save for a few shabby men kicking a ball of rags around in the far corner.
“We go to the tennis courts,” Arcangelo said. “We meet other painters. Once, we went to a duel.”
“Dueling’s illegal,” I said, my voice lethally matter-of-fact. “More than that, it’s vulgar. Think of your clients, Arcangelo! How many of them would pay to screw a man who goes drinking with painters and watches street fights?”
“Were you ever a whore?” Arcangelo snapped. His face was livid, utterly unlike him; falling from those perfect scarlet lips, the vulgarity sounded unthinkably obscene.
“No,” I said flatly, and slapped him.
The strike was not hard enough to draw blood, even with my rings, but it drew the attention of the football players. They came jogging up like a flock of vultures at the smell of rot.
“Then you don’t know how much they’d pay for a street-fighter,” Arcangelo finished, “do you?”
As if to punctuate his accusation, the ragged men surrounded us, and it was all I could do to draw my dagger and stand between Arcangelo and the one who appeared to be the leader – a man who clearly recognized me.
“Blessed screwing Saints,” he said through a mouthful of broken teeth. “If it isn’t Fillide Bonaventura.”
The last time I’d heard that voice, I was being held face-down in an alleyway. If I looked at his face, I was going to vomit.
“There’s a model for you, Matteo,” someone else shouted, and the others sniggered. “How much could you get for a painting of someone’s ugly little maiden aunt?”
“As much as I’d bet you that I can cut your balls off and choke you on them,” I said, twirling my dagger. “What do you want, Matteo Salvatora?”
“Couldn’t help noticing you slapping your whore around.” Matteo smirked at Arcangelo; I wanted to punch out what was left of his teeth. “This ugly little lady your pimp, mio caro?”
“Moving up in the world, ain’t you, Fillide?” someone behind me said. “From what Matteo says, I doubt you’d mind sharing.”
“Don’t touch me!” Arcangelo barked, and several things happened at once.
Matteo made a casual lunge at me, probably at my dagger hand, though his fingers ultimately caught my lace-shrouded breast. I kneed him in the crotch, turned, and saw Arcangelo punch the man who had been reaching for him. I lashed out with my dagger and severed one of the man’s outstretched fingers.
“Don’t touch him,” I said into the stunned silence that followed. Then I took Arcangelo by the wrist and ran with him into the nearest through alley before one of the bastards could go for the police.
Casimiro Gustiniano had contracted Arcangelo for nine on Dominica evening, about the time we usually arrived home from Ercole’s; but some unexamined childhood trauma left Casimiro incapable of arriving less than two hours early for every appointment, and as Arcangelo refused to shorten his visit with Ercole and someone needed to be at Palazzo Corballini to let Casimiro in, I had to trust that Arcangelo could get himself home without being robbed or murdered or worse.
After our run-in with Matteo Salvatoro, my confidence was not running high.
“So you say he’s with a painter?” Casimiro folded his long, elegant hands around one black-stockinged knee. “And what are the plans for that portrait? You know I’d offer a good price.”
I nodded, snapping my pocket watch closed. It was a quarter hour past nine. I’d spent two and a half hours amusing Casimiro, first in the dining room, then in the library, now in the parlor. In short, I’d done penance for all my sins and Arcangelo’s combined. “You send your household painter over every other week to ask Arcangelo to model,” I said. “I think it’s quite clear what you’d pay.”
“So why this artist, when you keep refusing my Edoardo?”
“Because Arcangelo took a liking to him,” I sighed. Not that I would have admitted Edoardo del Gustiniani anyway; he had a reputation for whoring and street-fighting, not unlike Matteo, though at least with Edoardo my objections weren’t personal.
Ah, yes. Fond memories of Matteo were all I needed to stick a cherry on top of this already wonderful evening.
“Why don’t you like him?” Casimiro asked.
“Because he…” Raped me, I almost said, when I realized neither of us had mentioned Matteo and the question must be about someone else. “I don’t like who?”
“The artist. You said Arcangelo took a liking to him, but you sounded displeased.”
“Painters are brutes,” I said and, mercifully, was interrupted by the distant ring of the doorbell before I could reveal anything more. “Arcangelo,” I said, jumping to my feet, and went to get the door.
It wasn’t Arcangelo.
“Signora Fillide Bonaventura?” The man, dressed in the drab brown of the Reman police, twisted his feathered cap between his hands; clearly, it had not been his choice to come here, and he would’ve given a lot to get out of fit. “They’re asking for you in Sant’ Angeli. Your…your courtesan…”
“Screwing Saints,” I said.
Casimiro, sneaking behind me to overhear the conversation, was wise enough to take a hint and get the hell out.
The police of Sant’ Angeli had a tacit understanding with the pimps of Remus that our courtesans were not to be disciplined without our knowledge – or, for those of us who offered a small monetary incentive, without our permission. As I waited for the officer to take me in to Arcangelo’s holding cell, I fingered the ruby choker resting on my collarbone and wondered whether I would pay to have the punishment mitigated.
In my current mood, probably not.
The same drab, nervous-looking man who had fetched me from Palazzo Corballini was assigned to supervise my meeting with Arcangelo. He led me through one of the gloomy and relentlessly humid tunnels beneath the castle to a gray little room with a table and benches on one end and a stained, splintered whipping post on the other.
“What is he accused of?” I asked my escort.
“Immorality,” he grunted. When I raised my eyebrows, he added, “Street-fighting. He could have lost an eye, and you should see the other bastard.”
Street-fighting, and injuring the other party. Screwing saints. The sentence for that was forty lashes. Robbery was another thirty; perhaps I could have those added on. Arcangelo needed reminding that his body was my property.
He came into the room looking chastened, his lovely eyes fixed on the floor, two spots of fever-brightness raised high on his cheeks. It occurred to me, rather suddenly, that he was old for a whore. Too old for his pretty eyes to get him out of everything.
“What were you thinking?” I asked softly.
Arcangelo looked up with a weak smile. “Are you going to pay our way out of here, Fillide? Because if not, the lovely lady who brought my dinner seems to think–”
“Stop it.” I was painfully aware of the officer staring at us from across the room. “What were you thinking, Arcangelo? You’re a courtesan, not some street kid. What were you getting out of it?” Petulantly, he turned his face away. I caught his chin, forced him to look at me and the whipping post. “You’re facing forty lashes, Arcangelo. Maybe I should let you have them. How impressed would your patrons be, do you think, by that kind of scar?”
“Please what?” I snapped, knowing what I sounded like. Who I sounded like.
Stop, Matteo. Please.
You know I’m not…I don’t want…
How do you know, if you’ve never tried?
“You don’t own me!” Arcangelo shouted, breaking the path of my thoughts. “You didn’t hear that smug bastard, how he talked to Ercole and me. Like he had the right to tell us what to do.”
“Kiss me, mio caro.” I mimicked the rolling inflection of Donna Isabel de’ Purgatoria. “You’re a courtesan, tesoro. Someone’s always telling you what to do.”
“So maybe I don’t want it from my pimp.”
The officer was still staring at us; I didn’t care. I reached out and ripped open the front of Arcangelo’s shirt, beneath his unbuttoned waistcoat. “Look,” I said, trailing my fingers over the smooth skin. “No scars. How many Reman whores can say that by the time they’re your age? You’re lucky you have a pimp to protect you.”
“Yes, well, maybe I need a few scars to impress my patrons.” He slapped my hand away and tried to button his waistcoat. His fingers were shaking too badly to do it. “I’m not yours,” he muttered. “Not any of yours. Not some thing you can do whatever you want with. Do you know what it’s like to be naked and blindfolded while Donna Isabel de’ Purgatoria walks around you with a knife? Do you know what Casimiro Gustiniani likes me to call him in bed?”
“You enjoy it,” I said savagely. “You have no idea what it would be like without my protection. What it’s like for the boys and girls who aren’t beautiful, held face-down on the floor of an alley, with your own dagger digging into your side and his breath hot on your ear and his–” I stopped, choking. The room was far too hot.
Arcangelo’s hands closed around my shoulders, cool and gentle. I lay my head against his chest, felt the softness of his skin on my cheek and the steady, distant thump of his heartbeat.
“This isn’t about Ercole for you, is it?” he whispered.
I shook my head. I had never told him about Matteo. “Is it for you?”
“Somewhat. Not entirely.”
My escort cleared his throat awkwardly. I took a hasty step back and began to button Arcangelo’s waistcoat. “Was there another man with him?” I called to the officer. “A painter?”
I unclasped my necklace and tossed it to him. “That will be enough to release them both, I suppose?”
The officer bowed. “Yes, signora.”
“Thank you, Fillide.” Arcangelo kissed me on the forehead.
“Don’t thank me,” I said. “Just get back to work.”
I made him go back to Casimiro. More accurately, I forbade him from going to Ercole’s the next morning, called back Casimiro Gustiniani and told Arcangelo to apologize. He did, and Casimiro paid the full price, and I spent the rest of the day pretending I couldn’t understand the sounds coming from Arcangelo’s bedroom.
He came down to the kitchen an hour after Casimiro left and took a jar of salve from the cupboard.
“Let me help you with that,” I said
Arcangelo shook his head. “I’ve got it.” He poured cool water into the sink basin and splashed it over his face and neck. “Fillide, can I ask you something?”
I nodded, sliding the coins I had been counting off the table and into a small velvet purse.
“Why weren’t you ever a whore?”
I paused; a few coins clattered to the stone floor, and I let them fall. “I was a pimp,” I said carefully.
“That doesn’t pay as much as being a whore.”
“But it did mean I got to give orders.”
Arcangelo slipped out of his shirt and rubbed it over his face like a towel. I could see dark bruises around his wrists and a few starting on his ribs. “Who do you like?” he asked suddenly. “In bed, I mean. Men or women?”
My face heated. “I don’t see how–”
“I like both,” Arcangelo interrupted. “Isabel de’ Purgatoria only likes men. Same with Ercole. But I don’t know about you.”
“I don’t,” I said. “I don’t like either. The thought of doing…what you do…for pay or not…”
“Is it because of what Matteo did to you?”
“No,” I said. That, I knew for certain. “I’ve always been like this. I’d see the boys and girls my age reddening their lips and spraying perfume, and I thought they were beautiful – I even loved some of them. Many of them.” I plucked a few coins from the floor and slid them into the purse. “But I didn’t want them. I can’t imagine paying for someone’s body, no matter how beautiful he is – much less a man I hardly knew. Or one who didn’t want me.”
“Do you understand…I don’t like all of it?” The chair across from me creaked as Arcangelo took a seat, but I didn’t look up. “What I’m doing, yes, but not why I’m doing it. I don’t like being bought.”
“You don’t want to be whore,” I said.
“No,” he said. “I don’t want to be a courtesan.”
Walking through Santa Maddelena at night was like walking back into my childhood. Most of the merchants had cleared out hours before; the ones who remained slumped drunkenly over their empty cars, or else had given up vending altogether and cupped their hands for alms from passersby. The teenage prostitutes, who during the day had darted about as quick and colorful as birds, now sat sullenly on broken doorsteps, sometimes alone, often with drab men and women who might have been pimps or clients trying to talk down the price. One young man – about the age Arcangelo had been when I met him, but lacking Arcangelo’s charm – tried to sweet-talk me into an alley, until I sent him off with a few pennies.
Ercole’s cellar studio was empty when I came down, though a stub of candle wax-cemented in the window-well cast weak light on a new canvas by the stairs. It was another still life, but unlike the others it showed a full room, complete with dents in the earth floor left by chair and table legs and shadow-crowded shelves that seemed to jut into the studio. At the edge of the table, a vase had tipped onto its side, spilling flowers out…
…onto the stone floor at my feet.
He dropped his model, I told myself, though that made no sense…the model would be on the other side of the easel, and besides, the nearest flower was a rose a shade darker than the one in the painting. It was not the same flower. If it had been cut before Ercole started painting and then dropped, it would have shriveled hours ago, and this rose’s stem was moist, moist like the earth floor in the painting where the vase’s water had dripped.
“Blessed Saints,” I whispered, reaching for the canvas. My fingers brushed hard paint.
“Try it with your eyes closed,” Ercole called from the stairs.
I started violently at the sound of his voice. “What is it?”
“I told you. I paint the souls of things – trap them in oil and canvas.” He came up behind me and closed his hand around my wrist. Instinctively, I winced and reached for my dagger, but he covered my eyes with his free hand and drew my fingers to the painting. Through the painting.
The air in that humble room was warmer than the studio’s, and damper. I felt the splintered edge of the table, the lumpy clay vase, the waxy petals of a tulip. I grasped one of them and pulled my hand back into the cellar.
When Ercole lifted his hand away from my eyes, I saw it sitting like a scarlet pebble in my palm.
“Blessed Saints,” I repeated.
Ercole released my wrist. “I wondered when you’d be coming by.”
“Show me the painting you’re doing of Arcangelo.”
I heard the panic in my own voice, but Ercole answered levelly. “It’s not finished, Signora.”
We crept up the stairs in silence, like a pair of thieves. The painting was in the first room we came to.
When Ercole painted flowers and fruit, he captured all his subject’s imperfections – perhaps exaggerated them. With Arcangelo, there were no imperfections to capture. He reclined nude on a red divan, the contrast between the rough velvet upholstery and his shadowed skin illuminated by a deep golden light from the upper left. One arm was crooked back behind his head, the fingers tangled in his hair, his face turned to the viewer with an expression that was at once completely innocent and purely sensual, the skin and eyelids flushed pink, his scarlet lips parted breathlessly.
But Ercole was right; it was incomplete.
“You haven’t finished the eyes,” I said.
Ercole shrugged, running his fingers over the bare slits of canvas between Arcangelo’s flushed cheeks and dark eyelashes. “The windows to the soul, they say.”
I paint the souls of things – trap them in oil and canvas.
I swallowed stiffly. “Does Arcangelo know?”
“Fillide.” Pity softened Ercole’s stare. “He knows.”
“Then he’s trying to escape me,” I said. And I began to laugh hysterically.
It took fully a minute for me to calm down. I wiped my streaming eyes with my sleeves and sat on the nearest surface – a red velvet divan, like the one in the painting. “I thought from the beginning,” I gasped, “that you were trying to steal him from me. I just didn’t know how completely.”
“Do you love him, Fillide?”
I smiled thinly. “What a question to ask a pimp,” I said, scratching my lace cuff across my tear-sticky face. “I protect him. I think he’s the most beautiful thing in the world. I couldn’t stand to live without him. If that’s love, then yes, I love him.”
“Does it matter to you that he isn’t happy?”
“Happy.” My smile folded in on itself. “He doesn’t know how good he has it. He takes the benefits of a pimp but doesn’t want to take orders.”
“He wants freedom. Surely you can appreciate that.”
“He’s a fool if he thinks it matters what he wants.”
“But you got what you wanted – didn’t you, Fillide? You began by selling kids in an alley, and now you’re the best-dressed pimp in Remus. You live in Palazzo Corballini and wear lace bodices and can bribe the police at Sant’ Angeli with strings of rubies.” Ercole knelt at the edge of the divan. “Arcangelo benefits too, of course. You’ve made him the city’s best-dressed whore. The only difference between Fillide Bonaventura and Arcangelo Melandroni…” He lay a paint-stained finger on my collar bone. “…is that Arcangelo would kill the man who hurt you, while you make him sit with those men at dinner. Is it any wonder he wants to escape?”
“Into the parish of Santa Maddelena?”
He pointed to the portrait. “That isn’t Santa Maddelena.”
“Blessed Saints.” I covered my mouth with both hands, choking down sobs. I thought of the terrible things I had said to Arcangelo over the last months, the things I had threatened, the things I had done. I thought of the bruises forming on his arms and chest. “Then he’s really going to be gone?”
“It’s what he wants,” Ercole said. “And maybe one day, you’ll love him enough to admit that matters.”
I stumbled out into the night, not certain where I was going or for what reason. Part of me wanted to get drunk, or pick a fight hard enough to remind me of San Sebastian della Feccia. Part of me wanted, senselessly, to find a whore. I needed to order someone, to own someone, to hurt someone, to…
No. I didn’t need that. I didn’t want that.
Please, Matteo. I don’t want…
I don’t want to be a courtesan.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said through gritted teeth, “what you want.”
“Damn shame for you, Bonaventura. You make a fortune off selling what other people want.”
I looked up. I had wandered into a small courtyard, walled on three sides by the humble, broken façades of old palazzi. A man and a woman sat on one of the doorsteps, both with rapiers drawn across their knees. Matteo Solvado was the one who had spoken.
“Not living up to your name, Fillide,” the woman said. She was Artemisia Zamora, an artist who’d made a small name for herself some years back with a fresco in Palazzo Primavera’s library. “I don’t think it’s good fortune that brings you up Matteo Solvado’s alley this time of night. He’s in a mood.”
Matteo stood, twirling his rapier. I drew my dagger and planted myself at the open side of the courtyard. “You saw what I did to your man the other day, Matteo. Don’t screw with me.”
“Screwing with you’s no fun, anyway. I’d rather screw your pretty whore.” He staggered a little as he walked towards me. “Where is he, anyway?”
“If you touch him, you’ll be singing castrato next Dominica morning.”
“I wouldn’t worry, Matteo,” Artemisia trilled. “She can’t keep her whore on his own leash. The other day he got picked up for street-fighting.”
“Damn,” Matteo said. “Missed my chance at him.”
I turned to Artemisia. “Give me your sword.”
“Give it to me.” I held out my hand, and she hesitantly laid the hilt in my palm – hesitantly, but with a streak of wicked curiosity showing in her eyes. I waited until she was out of range, and then I lunged at Matteo.
He blocked me, stumbling back a step. I pressed my advantage. The look of horror on his rough-handsome face was intoxicating.
“Watch out, Matteo!” Artemisia giggled. “Nothing like a pimp defending her honor.”
“No,” I said, blocking a blow of Matteo’s. “I’m defending my pretty whore’s honor.” And I stabbed Matteo in the most appropriate place I could think of.
He gave a strangled scream, too loose to be anything as definite as Blessed screwing Saints. His throat was open – I could have put him out of his misery. But I didn’t.
I went home to Arcangelo.
Only Arcangelo wasn’t at Palazzo Corballini.
I was too drained to dissolve into panic again. Every bone in my body ached with the knowledge of where he was and what he planned to do there. I could only hope he stayed long enough for me to reach him.
Back into the night, back through the alleys, past the drunken vendors and the street musicians and the eager whores. I still held Artemisia’s rapier, now stained at the tip. It had been years since I carried a sword, but strangely, instead of making me feel like a vulgar street-fighter, it gave me a measure of pride. I was protecting my honor, and the honor of the man…the man I loved.
Even if I was losing him forever.
For the briefest moment, as I crested the staircase to Ercole’s room, my heart sank. Ercole was alone. But then I saw the coat draped neatly over the edge of the divan, black silk with lace cuffs.
“Where is he?”
Ercole didn’t look up from his palette, where he was mixing brown and gold and silver-gray – the colors of Arcangelo’s eyes. “What makes you think he wants to see you?”
“I don’t know if he wants to see me,” I said. “But I need to see him.”
“Fillide.” Arcangelo stepped out from the door behind the canvas – the door that probably led to Ercole’s bedroom. To my surprise, I found I didn’t care about the casual way he moved from the door to the divan, though it probably meant he had made that same crossing many times before. “What are you doing here?”
“I came to say goodbye.”
He sat on the edge of the divan, one leg stretched out across it and the other hanging off the side, as though he were about to jump off. But he wouldn’t jump up, wouldn’t leave that divan – not in the studio, anyway.
How did living things move, in the world of Ercole’s paintings?
Arcangelo bent his head and began unbuttoning his shirt. His hair fell forward over his shoulders, hiding the upper part of his face like a blindfold. It would be wrong for me to say I had never appreciated his beauty until that moment – of course I had appreciated it, I had built my life around it. But for the first time, I saw it as something private, something he had and I could wonder at and neither of us could sell.
“So you’re not going to try to take me back,” Arcangelo said. Any color in his voice, any irony or regret or affection, was muffled by the veil of his hair. “Are you turning into a moralist, Fillide? Had a vision of a Saint and repented your sins?”
“I’m here to apologize–” I began, but Arcangelo’s laughter interrupted me. Sweet, playful laughter, mocking his own mockery.
“Do you mean that, Fillide? You came to say goodbye and not to lecture or threaten or – Saints save us – save me from myself?”
“To say goodbye,” I said, “and to apologize.” Tears began to burn the corners of my eyes.
Slowly, Arcangelo rose and came to me and took me in his arms, as though he thought I would push him away. I clung on to him like a child. Once again, the warmth of his chest beneath my cheek comforted me, though it was a bitter comfort. “Do you realize you’ll never see me again?” he asked.
“Yes,” I whispered.
“So why does it matter if you apologize?”
“Because I…” Love you. Another because I could never say aloud. “Because I hurt you, mio caro. Leaving doesn’t change that.”
“No,” Arcangelo said, “it doesn’t.” And he kissed me on the forehead.
He went around behind Ercole’s chair, bent forward and whispered something in the painter’s ear. A look of sorrow and deep pity crossed Ercole’s face. Arcangelo kissed him on the mouth, as chastely as he had kissed me, and went back to lie on the divan.
“Finish it, Ercole.”
I could not watch as Ercole added more color to his palate and began to fill in the portrait’s eyes. The sounds were enough – the silky roll of paint from a jar, the bristling scratch of brush on canvas. When at last even the sounds stopped, and the room was grave-silent, I opened my eyes and looked at the painting.
Something was wrong.
Its eyes were bright, petrifying green.
“Arcangelo has dark eyes,” I said. “My eyes are green.”
Ercole pointed silently to the divan.
“We know that,” Arcangelo said, standing up, “but whatever rich idiot Ercole sells that painting to won’t.”
“Arcangelo!” Ercole snapped. “That painting nearly held your soul. You know I couldn’t…”
“Nonsense, tesoro. It’s a magnificent painting – it has a soul, even if it isn’t mine. In fact, all the buyers I can think of – Casimiro Gustiniani being at the top of the list – would prefer my body without the soul attached, and they couldn’t guess my eye-color for a penny or a princedom.”
“Arcangelo,” I said seriously, though it hurt to be serious. Everything hurt. “You can’t seriously want to give such a beautiful painting to Casimiro Gustiniani.” I realized – distantly, as an observation made about a stranger – that I was sobbing with the pain of my relief. “We’ll take it…it can hang in the dining room…or your bedroom, it doesn’t matter, whatever you want…”
Arcangelo took a step towards me; but this time, I was the one who took him in my arms. Ercole looked on in silence, his brow wrinkled in understanding.
“Thank you, Ercole,” I whispered, “for a beautiful painting.”
He nodded solemnly.
Arcangelo leaned forward. I bent my head back and caught his kiss on my lips.
About the Author
Megan Arkenberg is a student in Wisconsin. Her work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Fantasy, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and dozens of other places. She edits the fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance and the historical fiction e-zine Lacuna.