Today I’m excited to share one of my favourite scenes from The Murano Glass Slipper: A Cinderella retelling, the sequel to to The Rose and the Mask and my permanent answer to the question “what are you doing tonight?” Of course, it hasn’t passed the eagle eyes of my lovely editor yet, but I hope you enjoy it 🙂
It was a quiet night at the Osteria del Cacciatore. You could tell because no one was bleeding.
The atmosphere was convivial: no semi-coherent roars about the presumed personal characteristics of anyone else’s mother, no one sitting outside in a pool of their own fluids, bitterly regretting recent events. Lupo, the owner, a grizzled mountain of a man with a stare that could freeze a troublemaker’s blood at ten paces, was standing peaceably behind the bar, replacing a broken string on his fiddle and making conversation with the regulars. Meanwhile, in the back room, the nest of thieves and swindlers for whom the osteria served as a sort of general headquarters conducted their business without incident.
To Domenico Vitello, who was observing the scene from his usual fireside seat, it seemed almost idyllic—though he was prepared to concede that that might have had something to do with the fact that he was on his fourth or fifth mug of the curious substance that it pleased Lupo to refer to as “beer”.
“Something on your mind, Vitello?”
The voice came from beside him, to his left. It took his dreamy, drink-mellowed mind a few moments to remember that the speaker was Marco, his friend and frequent carousing partner, and they were supposed to be having some sort of conversation.
“Hey, Domenico, wake up!” This was another speaker, to his right, and this time the words had a much greater effect on him—possibly because of the firm jab to the ribs that accompanied them.
“Ow.” Domenico sat up abruptly, spilling the contents of his mug over his trousers. “Oh, great. That’s Lupo’s brew—I’d be surprised if it doesn’t eat through fabric.”
“Welcome back to the land of the living,” said the rib-jabber—or Cesare, as he was more often known. “So, were you listening to anything we said, or…?”
Domenico rubbed ineffectively at the spillage for a second or two, then decided to take a punt. “Of course I was,” he said. “I agree with Marco.”
Of the two of them, he reasoned, it was usually safer to agree with Marco. After all, it wasn’t Marco who’d once woken him at three o’clock in the morning to outline a can’t-fail business plan that hinged on the citizens of Venice suddenly developing a taste for cat meat, or who’d broken into the Doge’s palace on a dare and inexplicably come out missing one of his shoes, or who’d drunkenly insisted his friends watch him attempt to swim the whole length of the Grand Canal.
Actually, Domenico thought, that last one might have been me. A memory was coming back to him, and it was cold and wet.
Cesare and Marco both laughed, which Domenico took to mean that he had erred. He coughed and tried again.
“Well, I mean, I agree with Marco in principle. But I suppose, when you consider all the relevant factors…”
The laughter was building to a crescendo now. Cesare looked moments from slapping his own thigh, and a stranger at a nearby table appeared to be joining in.
Domenico gave up. “All right, I wasn’t listening.”
“You amaze us,” said Marco.
“What,” Domenico resumed, “did you say?”
“I believe my exact words were ‘This is Pietro Bonaccorso.’” Marco grinned. “For further context, I should perhaps add that, when I said it, I was pointing to this gentleman here.”
Domenico looked in the direction indicated. It was the laughing stranger, and he wasn’t sitting at another table at all, he was sitting at theirs. Domenico frowned. “And this is…?”
“Pietro Bonaccorso,” said Pietro Bonaccorso.
Domenico considered this. “That makes sense,” he conceded, at length. He nodded to his new acquaintance. “Buona sera.”
“Pietro,” said Cesare, leaning forward, “has never been to this osteria before.”
Ah, thought Domenico.
“Really?” he said aloud, with an expression of wide-eyed surprise. “Are you new to Venice?”
“Not at all, I grew up here.” Pietro looked around. “I’ve just never been… here.”
There was a certain something in his tone that seemed to indicate that, in his opinion, he could probably have gone on not visiting the osteria for quite some time without suffering any ill effects.
“You’ve been making a mistake,” Domenico assured him. “This is the finest drinking establishment in the city.”
Pietro looked dubious. “Do you think so?”
“Oh, absolutely,” put in Marco. “I mean, certainly, it doesn’t have all the comforts you might find elsewhere. No fine wines, for example—”
“—And it could do with a few more comfortable chairs,” noted Cesare, who was sitting on what might once—prior to several very serious accidents—have been a stool.
“And I notice there’s quite a big hole in that wall,” noted Pietro, pointing upwards.
“Lets the fresh air in,” said Domenico, with a shrug. He’d often wondered what the osteria might be like without that hole. It was a thought that kept him up at night. “People let things like that bother them too much. The place really isn’t as bad as all that. That rumour that Lupo once bit off a man’s ear, for example—”
“Pure conjecture,” said Marco.
“Never believed it myself,” said Cesare.
“And if it did happen,” said Domenico, “it probably wasn’t the whole ear. Just a lobe or something.”
“Exactly,” said Marco.
“Almost certainly,” said Cesare.
Domenico leaned back in his chair, staring dreamily into the middle distance. “And, of course, all that pales into insignificance when you think about what this place has got.”
Pietro, who had been staring at the contents of his tankard with what looked like morbid curiosity, lifted his gaze. “What has it got?”
Domenico, Marco and Cesare glanced at one another, each recognising in the others a sort of misty wistfulness.
Cesare said it first, letting the syllables caress his tongue before spilling them over his lips. “Rosalinda.”
“Rosalinda,” Marco repeated, and this time the name was a soft, aching sigh, like the winter wind through frost-stripped trees.
“Rosalinda,” Domenico agreed, too impressed by his friends’ performances to do more than complete the set. “That’s her over there, sweeping the stairs.”
Pietro looked. Then he looked some more. People always did. Looking at Rosalinda wasn’t the sort of thing you could do just once. There were details to appreciate, lines and curves and colours that rewarded the careful observer. She was wearing a deep red sash today—she always wore something red—and it brought out the flashes of scarlet in her hair and the ruby in her bow-shaped lips.
“Wow,” was Pietro’s eventual verdict.
“She’s perfect,” murmured Cesare.
Marco swigged his drink. “Almost perfect.”
“Almost?” Pietro rounded on him, evidently stung by this criticism of the woman he loved. “Almost? What do you mean?”
“She’s Lupo’s wife,” said Domenico.
Pietro paled. Domenico felt almost sorry for him. It couldn’t be easy, running a whole gamut of emotions like that—from the fresh flush of new love to the desolation of love lost in under a minute. In fact, he knew exactly how it felt.
He straightened in his seat, reaching for what was left of his beer. “You know,” he said, addressing the table at large, “I think tonight is the night.”
“For what?” asked Cesare.
Marco was already shaking his head. “Domenico, no.”
“I’m going to go for it.” Domenico drained his cup. “I’m going to ask Rosalinda for a kiss.”
“But she’s Lupo’s wife,” said Pietro. “Lupo’s the bartender, right? The one with all the scars? The one that maybe bit someone’s ear off? Or—” he frowned “—part of it.”
Domenico nodded. “Exactly. Look at him.”
They all looked. Lupo was actually smiling at that moment, in response to something one of the regulars had said, but it didn’t suit him. Some faces were built to scowl, and Lupo’s was one of them. In fact, he was a scowl personified: a great, furrowed brow with legs and fists.
“What,” Domenico continued, “has he got that I haven’t?”
“You mean besides a hundred pounds of muscle and a couple of feet in height?” said Marco.
“Yes,” said Domenico, “besides that.”
“Oh, well,” said Cesare, “besides that, nothing.”
Marco folded his arms. “He’s going to grind you into a fine paste.”
Domenico smiled. “Not if he doesn’t notice.”
“How could he not notice?”
Domenico widened the smile by a molar or two. “Bet you he doesn’t.”
“No, thanks.” Marco shook his head. “You’re a friend. I wouldn’t feel right profiting from your untimely death.”
Domenico moved on. “Cesare? You like easy money, don’t you? What do you say? Fifty lire on Lupo beating me to a—what was it, Marco?”
“A fine paste,” Marco repeated, obligingly.
Cesare hesitated, the struggle evident on his face. “I do like easy money. But… no. Marco’s right. I’d spend all the money getting drunk after your funeral, anyway.”
Domenico spread his hands, expressively. “Are there no sportsmen amongst you? Pietro, what about you? I’m a stranger to you, you don’t care if I get pounded to a near-liquid consistency, do you?”
Pietro hesitated. “Well…”
“Go on. We’ll say thirty lire, just for fun. Thirty lire and you get to see what my esteemed colleagues evidently think will be a masterclass in violence.”
Pietro’s face flickered. Domenico knew that flicker. It wasn’t polite, was it, to bet on a stranger getting pulverised? It wasn’t done.
But it was very, very tempting.
“All right,” said Pietro. “You’re on. Thirty lire says Lupo notices.”
“And I get mashed to a pulp.” Domenico nodded.
“Well,” said Pietro, “yes. That too.”
“Pietro Bonaccorso,” said Domenico, getting to his feet, “you’re a gentleman and a scholar. Excuse me.”
While the room certainly seemed larger tonight than it did on busier evenings, when the osteria rang with animated conversation, music, dancing, fistfighting—or, more commonly, all of the above—it wasn’t that big. It took Domenico only ten or fifteen paces to travel from the cosy corner where this wager had been struck to the staircase on the other side of the room, where Rosalinda was sweeping. It would have been impossible for anyone standing at the bar to fail to observe a young man moving past it with a purposeful stride. A really close observer might even have seen Lupo’s eyes track Domenico across the room.
Suddenly, the bartender was distracted, by a regular calling for more liquid refreshment. But pouring another beer would take him only a moment—much less time, surely, than it would take Domenico to persuade Rosalinda to kiss him. And that was in the unlikely event that Rosalinda could be persuaded, that she wouldn’t simply swat him away with her broom and call for her husband.
No, there was no way Lupo could possibly miss this.
Or, thought Domenico, so one would be disposed to imagine. He smiled broadly as he neared Rosalina, fighting to keep the confident spring in his step to a believable level.
“Ciao, bella,” was his opening remark.
Rosalinda, standing on the bottom step, glanced down at him, then gave a beautifully sardonic eyeroll. “Again?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Domenico, where do you find these people? I can’t believe there are so many of them.”
“You’ll have to ask Marco and Cesare. Finding them isn’t my job. You know what my job is.” He wiggled his eyebrows, suggestively.
She laughed. “Well, how could a girl resist that?” She bent, planting a delicate peck on his cheek. “You’re terrible,” she whispered, before drawing away.
He winked. “I know. You’d think it’d get me into more trouble.”
Rosalinda pressed her lips together in mock-frustration and for a moment Domenico remembered the night he, like Pietro, had fallen temporarily in love with her. That had been three years ago, when he first came to Venice, and time and the city’s many delights had cured him of it quickly enough. Now he was free to enjoy her friendship—along with her tolerance for this little scam.
There could be no question of anyone drawing Rosalinda away from Lupo. Rosalinda loved her husband—human scowl though he was—with the sort of fierce, burning intensity usually only seen in the eyes of dogs outside butchers’ shops. And Lupo knew it.
“I can’t believe it,” Pietro exclaimed, as Domenico crossed the room again to receive the adulation of his peers. “That’s just not possible.”
“Do you doubt the evidence of your own senses, Signor Bonaccorso?” Domenico sank languidly into his chair: the conquering hero at rest.
“No. No.” Pietro’s head oscillated in abject disbelief. “Something’s not right here. I’m going to get to the bottom of this.” He stood.
Marco put out a hand, patting Pietro’s passing sleeve in a pacific manner. “There, now, Pietro, we’re all surprised—”
“Surprised!” Pietro kicked back his chair. “I’m going to talk to him.”
Cesare winced. “Lupo?”
“Lupo,” Pietro confirmed, which attracted the attention of the man himself.
“Another beer?” Lupo asked, resting the newly-healed fiddle on the bar.
Marco, Cesare and Domenico exchanged looks. It wasn’t every day they got a show.
“No,” said Pietro, at the risk of repeating himself. “I don’t want a beer, I want an explanation.”
Lupo raised an eyebrow. “This isn’t really an ‘explanation’ sort of place. But that offer of beer is still open.”
Domenico loved listening to Lupo talk. It was like listening to two thunderstorms meeting in the middle of the ocean and getting into a territorial dispute.
Pietro pointed towards the staircase, and Rosalinda. “Is that your wife?”
Lupo made a show of looking, leaning over the bar and craning his neck. “I think so.” He raised his voice. “Hey, Rosa, you’re my wife, aren’t you?”
“That’s what the priest said, caro,” said Rosalinda, without looking up from her broom.
Lupo returned his gaze to Pietro. “She’s usually right about these things.”
Pietro had gone a little pale. “But—you must have seen him?”
Pietro gestured at Domenico. “That short fellow with the hair. He just walked over there and got your wife to kiss him.”
Domenico contrived to look affronted by this. Since he’d just been referred to as “that short fellow with the hair”, it wasn’t difficult. The words had wounded him. He wasn’t that short, not when you considered the broad spectrum of sizes things could be. And, while it was true that his hair was at a somewhat unruly length at the moment and kept flopping into his eyes, he had been rather nurturing the idea that it looked rogueishly charming.
Lupo had drawn himself up to his full height, which was usually a bad sign. “I didn’t see anything.”
“Well…” Pietro looked distinctly unnerved, but seemed to decide that he was in too deep to back out now. “He did.”
Lupo looked from Pietro to Domenico to Rosalinda and back again. “I don’t think so,” he said.
“Because if someone did that, I’d go over to him and suggest—in the strongest possible terms—that he get out of my osteria before it became necessary for me to remove any of his limbs.”
Perhaps it was Domenico’s imagination, but Pietro’s voice seemed to be getting higher.
“And when I do that,” Lupo continued, “people always leave.”
“Always.” Lupo was firm on this point. “And the short fellow with the hair is still there, isn’t he?”
Domenico glowered. While, broadly speaking, the conversation seemed to be going well, there was a recurring theme to it that he could have done without.
Pietro slapped the bar, going for broke. “I saw it, rot you! With my own eyes.”
“Signor,” said Lupo, somehow managing to make the honorific sound like an appalling insult. At moments like this, Domenico could swear Lupo’s always-remarkable muscles swelled beneath his skin, adding a subtle undertone of menace to his measured words. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to control yourself.”
Pietro looked around, his desperate gaze appealing to the regulars, the furniture, the very air, for support, but finding none. Finally, he sagged. Letting out a noise like someone deflating a cow, he turned away and made for the door.
“You two should follow him,” said Domenico. “He owes us thirty lire.”
Cesare sighed. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
Domenico grinned. “Hey, I’ve done my bit.”
“We’ve got to think about renegotiating this partnership,” said Marco, but he was getting to his feet. “Come on, Cesare,” he added, and they made for the door.
Domenico finished his own drink and Cesare’s, then walked over to the bar and grinned at Lupo. “My heartfelt thanks as always.”
Lupo snorted. “It’s the only way I get any rent out of you. I notice he didn’t pay up?”
“The other two will take care of it.” Domenico stretched. “I think I’m going to go to bed.”
“Wait a minute.” Lupo nodded, indicating that Domenico should follow him to the other end of the bar, where they were marginally less likely to be overheard. He produced a sheet of paper, folded and sealed with wax. “This came for you.”
Domenico felt a tingle of apprehension as he held his hand out for the letter. One didn’t write a letter to someone unless one wanted to talk to them, and most of the people who wanted to talk to Domenico wanted to talk about money he owed them—a topic Domenico was keen to avoid. He’d almost finished unceremoniously shoving the missive into his pocket before he registered what was written on the front of it. Slowly, he pulled it back out.
There it was, in black and white.
The Right Hon. Augustus Walpole
Osteria del Cacciatore
He squinted at it, waiting for the writing to stop dancing. Then he looked up. Lupo met his gaze, impassive and unruffled.
“That’s quite a name,” Domenico muttered, with affected disinterest. “English, do you think?”
Lupo shrugged. “Could be.”
“I, um—” Domenico’s palms were beginning to sweat. “I wonder how this letter ended up here.”
“Beats me,” said Lupo. “But I had a feeling you’d be able to get it to its intended recipient.”
“Hmm.” Domenico pushed the letter back into his pocket—perhaps a little more gently this time. “You know,” he said, brushing hair out of his eyes, “I’m not that tired. I think I’ll stay down here a while. How about some music?”
Lupo’s eyes narrowed a little—but it wasn’t in his nature, or the interests of his business, to ask too many questions. Besides, it rarely took much persuasion to get him to play.
One of the regulars, who had, until then, seemed to be slumped over the bar in blissful slumber, lifted his head. “Music?” he mumbled. “Yes, let’s have some music.”
“Oh, all right,” said Lupo—but by then his fingers had already struck up a tune.