The Tavern Wench of Venice
“God’s blood, there’s witchery in it!”
Leona, sitting in the tavern’s west window, didn’t look up from the tattered copy of As You Like It she was reading. Her employer’s outbursts were a nightly occurrence.
Benito stood in the door of the Hooked Leviathan, scowling at the long line of customers waiting to dine at their competitor, the Flaming Chalice. “Nearly two hundred years! That’s how long my family has made the finest ravioli in Ravenna, if not all of Venice. A newcomer can’t best me, unless he uses magic.”
Two fortnights earlier, a stranger named Silvano had opened the Flaming Chalice two streets north from Benito’s. Since then, every afternoon a line of prospective diners formed at the Flaming Chalice, starting at the front door and wending its way more than half a mile through the city’s twisty streets.
“Madre Maria si vede!” squeaked Tommaso, Benito’s son-in-law and journeyman cook. “Even fairy folk are waiting to dine at Silvano’s!”
That news prompted Leona to shut her book and peer at the queue of Flaming Chalice customers. Sure enough, a trio of elves had just come around a bend. Humans kept a nervous distance from them, but the elves talked and laughed together and paid the mortals no heed. From time to time both humans and elves sniffed the air, their faces lit by enthralled smiles as the aromas of sun-dried tomatoes, rich cheeses, and savory herbs escaped the doors and windows of Silvano’s tavern.
“How gentle and good-natured the elves look.” Elven voices sounded to Leona like liquid sunshine. “Surely it can’t be true they’ve got no souls.”
Tommaso shrugged. Benito didn’t seem to hear her.
“Someone should fetch an inquisitor.” Benito clenched his big, brawny hands into fists. “Nobody could witness those elves – mark you, elves! – waiting in line to eat at a human tavern, and still doubt that magic is a favorite ingredient in Silvano’s kitchen!”
“But the inquisitors already inspected the Flaming Chalice and found no unlawful practices.” Tommaso withered under his father-in-law’s answering glare.
“A share of the profits, and the inquisitors would take care to find nothing wrong.”
That could be true. Inquisitors were government officials, but specially trained by the Church to investigate diabolical offenses. Lately they focused on unlawful practitioners of sorcery. Unlicensed persons caught using magic could be put to death, especially if they were not wealthy enough to bribe the inquisitors.
Leona winced, seeing her employer watch his livelihood and family pride vanish into a rival’s possession. “If a tavern-keeper could observe Silvano, they could tell the inquisitors where to look for proof of his witchcraft. Then the inquisitors would have to take action.”
Benito clapped his hands together so loud that both Leona and Tommaso jumped. “Good thinking, girl!” Studying her, he suggested, “I’m too well known, hereabouts, and so is Tommaso. But you, fanciulla, have lived only two months in Ravenna. They’d not recognize you. And with so much business, Silvano is certain to need help of some kind.”
“You want to be an actress, you tell us. Here’s your first chance to play a part.”
“But…” She reached for her rosary, but she’d thrown it away along with her childhood. “Signore, if I ask work of Silvano to spy on him, I’ll be guilty of lying.”
“What is acting, if not telling lies?” Benito looked to Tommaso, who nodded agreement.
She thought about Robard, considering what he’d do. The year Leona had been thirteen, an acting troupe begged the convent where she’d grown up to shelter them from an early winter storm. Robard had been the troupe’s youngest member. Seeing them perform the mystery play of the Creation and Lucifer’s Fall, Leona wanted nothing more in life than to be an actress. Robard, she was certain, would call spying on Silvano a part in a real-life play.
Looking at the copy of As You Like It she’d left lying in the window, Leona smiled. “’All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,’” she quoted. “I’ll do it.”
Grinning, Tommaso stripped off his apron. “I’ll borrow clothes from my younger brother, to disguise you!”
First they cut her reddish hair, a little shorter than shoulder-length. Then they dressed her in boy’s clothes, complete with a trimmed sausage link to fill out the codpiece. She grinned at her reflection in the nearest canal.
Leona approached Silvano’s tavern by a labyrinth of shadowy alleys, avoiding the streets crowded with prospective Flaming Chalice customers. She knocked five times on the back door before it finally opened.
A one-eyed, gray-haired crone who ought to be a witch in Macbeth frowned so fiercely at Leona that she took a hasty step backward. “Piss off, boy, we’re busy.”
The crone started to shut the door, but Leona inserted a foot between the door and its frame. “Have mercy, missus! I’m here looking for work.”
Suddenly the door swung wide open. Behind the crone stood a man tall and well-proportioned, with glossy black hair and mustache and beard, his garb of bright colors and superior materials. He had an aura of majesty even a true king might envy. Leona warmed at the sight of him.
“You seek work, you say? Let’s have a look at you, garzone.” He examined her from head to toes. “What’s your name?”
“Mercutio, signore.” Though Benito and Tommaso had advised her to answer to Leo, due to its comfortable similarity to her own name, Leona was fond of the scene-stealing witty charmer from Romeo and Juliet. She couldn’t resist the opportunity to use his name while disguised as a boy.
“Indeed? And what are you good for, Mercutio?”
“Not much, to tell truth. I was apprenticed to a blacksmith, but he beats me, so I ran away.”
“A blacksmith’s apprentice! You’re not built for it. What was your father thinking?”
They had failed to plan an answer for that question. But Leona threw herself into her acting, and improvised: “Father was thinking our overlord wanted me away from his daughter, signore.”
For a few seconds the gentleman stood looking her in the eyes, and Leona warmed again under his gaze. She was glad the nuns who raised her couldn’t see her now. Just when she was about to look away, the man roared with laughter.
“Welcome, Mercutio! If you work with as much vigor as you wench, you’ll do well here. I can use a lad to wash dishes and chop vegetables. Come in. I am Silvano.”
Leona never imagined work could be such torture. Even in the convent that raised her, when she was assigned rough labor as punishment for girlish sins, the tasks set for her had clear limits. A floor to be scrubbed had a beginning and an end. The sisters could not fetch more floor for her to polish.
But the Flaming Chalice’s dirty plates and cups and cutlery just kept multiplying. She washed and dried again and again, but still the tavern wenches carried more grimed dishes to Leona’s tub filled with hot soapy water. Her feet throbbed from standing still too long, and her back and shoulders ached from leaning over to scour dishes.
Just when she thought she’d be forced to quit due to the too-real agony of this make-believe employment, she heard Silvano announce midnight and the tavern’s closing. Zola, the crone and chief cook at the Flaming Chalice, sighed relief and flung her apron into the tub with the dirty dishes. Silvano held open the washroom door for three wenches carrying tall stacks of dirty dishes, then joined Zola at the back door.
“How is our new helper working out?”
Zola snickered. “He’s near falling off his feet, I reckon, but still here. More’n can be said for some others we’ve tried.”
“Well, maybe he’ll build stamina, working here. Stamina is useful for wenching as well as working. Is it not so, Mercutio?”
Leona, struggling to scrape a bit of burnt cheese off a cooking pot, forgot to answer. Silvano laid a hand on her shoulder and repeated, “Mercutio?”
“Yes, signore?” She blushed as she realized her mistake.
Silvano’s eyes, dark as ink, searched Leona’s. He let go her shoulder, at last. “It will soon be over, lad. Until sunrise, when I’ll need you to chop vegetables. Since you’re a runaway, why don’t you sleep in the washroom until you’ve found other lodging?”
“Thank you, signore.” Leona forced her protesting back to bow to Silvano, before she returned to the wash tub.
While Silvano escorted Zola home, Leona speculated. Not once during that long night had she seen or heard anything that could be deemed witchcraft. Old Zola looked the part, beyond doubt, but she spoke only to instruct her two assistant cooks. As for Silvano, he devoted most of the evening to visiting his customers at their tables, only entering the kitchen to communicate special requests from the diners. No uncanny ingredients appeared to be in use, nor did Leona hear anything that could be incantations muttered by cooks or servers.
But, again beyond doubt, something out of the ordinary was happening in the Flaming Chalice. The scent of a truly enchanting ravioli hung thick in the air, making Leona’s tummy growl like a caged monster.
When the apprentice cooks fetched the last of the cooking pots to Leona for washing, she spied half a square of ravioli stuck to the bottom of one pot. Looking around, she found herself alone. So she plucked the ravioli free and popped it into her mouth.
A cheese too exquisite for words melted on her tongue, bursting into rich and creamy flavor. Ecstasy eased every sore muscle in her body, and she heard herself moan with a pleasure the nuns would surely think scandalous. Desperate for more, she examined every pot and pan by the light of the lamp hanging over the wash tub. But there were no more scraps of ravioli. She heard someone who must be Silvano unlocking the back door, and busied herself scouring dishes again.
Now she knew one clue to the magic of Silvano’s ravioli, however: a cheese more miraculous than manna from heaven.
When Leona finished her work, she curled up on the washroom floor to try for some sleep. Outside she heard the cathedral clock chime 3 AM. Time for Lauds, for those devout enough to observe the full litany of the hours. Moreover, according to some that time was also the witching hour. She shivered, wondering which was true, as she shut her eyes and wrapped her cloak around herself for a blanket.
Dreams troubled her sleep. She wandered lost through Ravenna, the twisting streets and winding canals changing places as she tried to find her way. A fog both dense and eerie formed chill, damp fingers that probed all her feminine parts. Footsteps fell soft behind her, but when she whirled around for a look at her pursuer she saw nobody there. She flung herself to her knees on the steps of a church, crying out to Mother Mary to lead her home. Then the fog dissipated and she saw the sign of the Hooked Leviathan. Judas hung from the sign by a rope around his neck, and his gaze met hers and he said, “There’s no mercy for a servant who proves false to their master.” He raised a hand to his lips and blew hard, and a fine powder dusted Leona’s face.
Then she was naked on the floor of the Flaming Chalice washroom. Silvano stood over her, his arms folded across his chest and his eyebrows turned down sternly. “I know you’re a girl. Now tell me truth, girl, what is your name?”
Although she tried to stay silent, or to protest, some strange force compelled her to answer honestly: “Leona.”
“What do you want with the Flaming Chalice, Leona?”
“I’m trying to learn why the ravioli is so irresistible.” She tried to bite her lip to stop herself, but her will was no longer her own. “There’s some kind of magic in the cheese.”
Silvano smiled, but without true merriment. He uncrossed his arms and passed his hands over her, speaking a language unlike any she’d ever heard. And then darkness overpowered her.
Cold water splashed her face. Sitting up was a struggle, because her wrists were bound. One hand landed in something squishy, which proved to be a pile of manure.
Her heart racing, she looked around. She lay on bare rocks, next to a rushing stream. Through the dimness, she could barely discern cavern walls. And behind her, holding a lit oil lamp in one hand, was Silvano.
“You wished to learn the secret of my magically delicious cheese, Leona? So you shall. But you will never return to Ravenna to tell my secret to others.” Silvano gestured to his right. Peering into the shadows, Leona witnessed a sight that robbed her of breath.
Creatures were chained to the stone walls of the cavern. They had the bodies of women, but the heads of cows. Drops of milk clung to their nipples. Lidded pails were stacked against one wall, and a heavy whip hung from a hook there. A tangle of nausea churned her stomach as she realized these monsters were the source of Silvano’s otherworldly luscious cheese.
They all stamped and mooed. Straining against the shackles restricting their movements, they leaned toward her. An assortment of bones lay scattered all around. Odors of dung and rancid meat choked the air.
“Minotaurs…” She remembered reading about them in her history lessons at the convent.
“One is. The bull of the herd.” Silvano waved at a much larger specimen, which Leona realized with a blush was quite male. “All the others are females, minotauresses. They are called asterions, in the land of the fey.” He murmured into her ear, “Do you know what they eat, girl?”
“Human flesh.” Leona gasped as Silvano now pushed her toward the herd. She dug her boots into the rocky floor.
“You are clever,” he grunted, still pushing. “Once I would have rewarded you, taught you sorcery. Now, though, with the Church hunting out and killing all the wizards and witches they cannot tame, a magician must hide his art behind some more common employment.” He chuckled, and added, “I enjoy superb food. So I hide behind the occupation of tavern-keeper.”
Very suddenly Silvano kicked one of Leona’s heels as he pushed her again, and she stumbled forward. Panic seized her, and she twisted in his hands and kicked at him. She pivoted and kicked again, hitting the back of his knee. His fine shoes, not made for treacherous footing, skidded in a mound of fresh manure. Silvano hurled forward onto his hands and knees. The bull bellowed and smashed his huge fist, with a sickening crunch, into one side of Silvano’s head.
A minotauress scooped up a ring of keys that fell from Silvano’s belt. She tried them one by one until the lock chaining her neck popped open. Her gaze met Leona’s.
Seeing no other hope of escape, Leona offered up a silent prayer for salvation. Though still bound at the wrists, she dived into the rushing stream.
Leona was pulled half-drowned out of one of the many canals flowing through the Republic of Venice. Her rescuers were the trio of elves she had seen the day before, inquisitors in a sense, themselves. They’d been sent by their queen to investigate the disappearance of a herd of asterions from the land of the fey. After reviving her they delivered her to the Hooked Leviathan and the care of Benito’s family.
Shamed that Leona almost lost her life spying on a rival for his sake, Benito vowed to pay an acting troupe to train her in their art. But Leona shook her head. “I’ve had enough of acting, signore.”
“Then what do you wish to do with your life, now it’s been saved in answer to your prayer?”
“I’ll be a tavern wench. And I’ll send part of my wages to the convent, as thanks for raising me. But please don’t be offended, signore,” and she clasped Benito’s hands, “if I never eat ravioli again.”