13 March, 1287
Forgive me, sister,
I do not wish to steal you from God’s work, Maria Grazia, but I must share with you the effects of your marvelous tea. It has worked just as you said it would. To think when I last saw you, you were a child playing with dolls and now, now, Maria Grazia, you are an apothecary who puts the dusty old medico of Verona to shame. Imagine it!
How can I thank you, dearest? What measure of gratitude could I bestow upon you that would equal the treasure you have given me? My last gift to you was a silver ribbon. You were scarcely eight years old. Do you remember? I gave it to you on the day I married Reinaldo. You trembled when I put in your hair. You were so frightened to walk down the aisle of the church under all those peering eyes. Even Reinaldo, your brave big brother, could not assuage your fears. Then I whispered to you how frightened I was. A girl from the country, a maid, no less, marrying a Cavaliere. I thought I was dreaming and would awake to find that I had imagined every grace bestowed upon me since coming here. You whispered back that I was not a maid, or a girl, but an angel who had made Reinaldo smile again. You held my gaze and in that moment we became sisters. Because of you I had the courage to walk into my life as Reinaldo’s wife. You shunned your fear to give me strength.
Your sainted Mama would have been proud of you, Maria Grazia, as she would be now. From the day I came to the House of Cavaliere as your mother’s maid she treated me with a kindness I had never known. How the other Ladies of Verona mocked her for teaching me to read and write. Her reply to them? “Only a fool would wish to be surrounded by fools.” Your mother freed me from darkness. And so it was that as her sight began to fade, I was able to shed light in her darkening world by reading to her. As bittersweet as it was, those were some of my fondest memories. Reading to your Mama while she held you in her arms, both of you drifting to sleep with stories of heroes alighting your dreams. (All the ones your father forbade!) Your Mama proved to me that there is gentleness in the world. You are very much her daughter, Maria Grazia. When she died, my heart broke for her beloved children and your father. Perhaps that is what Reinaldo first saw in me — my love for your family.
My debt to you has increased a hundredfold since those long lost days. You have brought little Teo back to me! Gone is the screaming, arching babe who thrashed in my arms. In its place is Teo, warm and sweet and mine.
Cook serves me three cups of the tea every day, as instructed. The taste is not displeasing and its effect is none but the desired one of soothing Teo. Is it fennel and chamomile I detect? I am happy to say that the tea has worked so well that even your stepmother and her ladies cannot deny it. (They, who would have me give my child to another woman to feed!) I know I am just a peasant dressed in silks, Maria Grazia, but I hold to my beliefs as jealously as a merchant holds to his scales. They are the same as my mother’s and her mother before her and before that, to the beginning of time. Teo’s place is at my breast, for he is me and I am he.
You were my last hope, Maria Grazia, for even Reinaldo was growing weary of Teo’s cries — and my foul humor. We tried every manner of consolation, as you know, but it was either folly or worked so well as to put our little lion into a stupor that frightened me. To see him thus — pallid and limp from the mandrake — was too much to bear. And so, God delivered a miracle by way of an angel. You.
I miss you, Maria Grazia. I wish you were here to see Teo and to talk with me. Alas, I do not have much news to share. Teo and I do not venture far from the garden or our little room. Reinaldo bids me to act like the Lady I will become when your father relinquishes the house to him. (Although I think your stepmother will forbid your father to die. He would rather cross the devil himself than his own Lady Mafalda!) Reinaldo tells me to be her shadow so that I might learn how best to run the house, but I would rather sit in the garden and watch the butterflies with wonder as Teo does than to view a servant with contempt as is your stepmother’s way.
Ay, but I almost forgot! Teo and I did spy something grand from our window perch. Bartolomeo della Scala has taken the hand of Costanza di Corrado d’Antiochia. We watched their wedding procession through town, across the Adige all the way to the Palazzo del Capitano, where they feasted on a boar that Bartolomeo himself shot. (Reinaldo said it was a scrawny thing, and a bit dry.) Every notable man, woman and beast of Verona looked to be there. Dressed in such finery of gold and red (Della Scala’s colors, of course) to rival the Lords and Ladies of Florence or Rome. Your father and Mafalda attended. (Mafalda spoke of nothing else for days!) Reinaldo went at his father’s insistence. (Many a business deal has been struck at the banquet table, so says your father.) I was too tired to accompany him, but truth be told I much preferred to watch with Teo. Like little sparrows we were, watching from among the sycamores.
Antiochetta, as Costanza is called, is as beautiful as they say. Although her eyes are rather close together and her hair by no means resembles the color of sable like the ladies of Verona would have you believe. She brings her father’s loyalty to the della Scala’s and coffers filled with Moorish gold. I dare not surmise as to which — her beauty or her wealth — Bartolomeo finds most attractive.
I do not know what it is foretold by marrying on such a gray day, dearest, but the Prince and his bride will have it is in spades! Though there was a chill in the air, the people did not hide their finery under woolen wraps. The bride was no different. No cloak covered her dress, which was a delicate cloud of white. Vanity, I suppose, must have kept her warm, for her smile was constant. That much I could see. I cannot attest to the quality of embroidery on her dress, if there was any, but I could not help but see the cascade of jewels — red, yellow, green — that adorned her. Some were as large as Teo’s fist. (I do not exaggerate, Maria Grazia!) As for the Prince, he sauntered through Verona like he had just shot a prized pheasant and was bringing it home to devour.
I hope the lock of Teo’s hair makes you smile. It is the greatest gift I have to give. See how blonde he is? Like his papa. (He is headstrong — and dear — also like his papa.) I hope the smell of it reaches you. It smells of woodbine and rain, does it not?
I must relinquish you, now. Teo awakens and I imagine you have much to do. I am so very proud and grateful, Maria Grazia, my dearest apothecary.
May these words echo through the expanse between us … thank you.