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Don't own, don't sue. Originally written for the March History Challenge on The Delphic Expanse. My assignment was Renaissance Italy. Historical figures are mentioned in this story. A HUGE thank you to Honeybee for the beta!

Venice in 1484 was ruled by the infamous Council of Ten, a group of noblemen who were the real powerbrokers in the city. They ruled with an iron hand, and had spies everywhere. The Doge, or Duke, was only a figurehead.

The Peace of Lodi was signed in 1454 between the cities of Milan, Naples and Florence and put a temporary end to the constant wars between the city-states. Venice entered a similar pact with Ferrara, Mantua and Urbino. The uneasy peace lasted intil 1482.

Milan in 1484 was ruled by the Sforza family. At this point in time, the city was a major financial center, and was beginning to be known as a center of high fashion (though it still took until at least 1530 before its clothiers became well-known all over Europe.

Women were limited in their freedom, especially those from high-born families. Many were pawns in their families' quest for power and position.

Venice, 1484

“Venice, the city on the water. I've always loved this place,” said Captain John Archer. He settled back on the hard wood of the rowboat. “So vibrant, so full of life. The smells of baking bread, fresh cheese from the dairy...”

His first mate rolled his eyes in response. The smells on the harbor wind told him otherwise, and he wondered how long one could hold his breath. “I'll take your word for it, Sir.”

“How many times do I have to tell you, Mister Reed, that you need to expand your horizons?”

“Too many times to count, Sir.” Lieutenant Malcolm Reed, late of His Majesty's Navy, shifted uncomfortably on the seat across from Archer. The man was hardly your typical English sea captain, but Reed and the crew of the Enterprize firmly gave him their loyalty. If it meant tolerating the captain's strange quirks, so be it.

He narrowed his eyes at the shadows on the horizon. They were close enough to see the small, flat-bottomed gondole moored at the dock, and fishermen hauling in the morning's catch. The sounds of goats, chickens and other animals floated on the wind. The sunlight threw bright color upon the narrow cobblestone streets. It was a definite contrast with the darkness of the alleys that led deeper into the city.

It was also a definite change from the drab, smoky haze of the London docks along the Thames.

“Isn't that a sight? Different from London, Liverpool or even Dover. The atmosphere is not the same, It's hard to truly define it.”

Reed started as the captain picked up on his thoughts. “'s not like England at all.”

“Venice has a special place in my heart. I met my wife here, five years ago. She should arrive in a few days. I think Eriana will like you, Mister Reed.”

Reed sighed and prayed for patience. So, that was the reason why Archer was so eager to leave the Enterprize moored off the Venetian coast and use the longboat. Archer had married a Spanish woman, the Lady Eriana Hernandez, cousin to Queen Isabella, who was the wife of John II of Castile. Privately, Reed thought that entire branch of Castile's royal family was quite mad, but he knew better than to voice that opinion out loud.

Then again, since when has Archer done anything conventional, including whom he decided to marry? Reed thought.

“You seem quiet, Malcolm. Are you all right?”

The use of his given name snapped him out of his thoughts. “Forgive me, Captain, I was only thinking.”

“This is your first visit to Venice. The political climate calmed down since the Peace of Lodi was signed, but that lasted until two years ago. We must always be on our guard. The Council of Ten have their eyes and ears everywhere.”

He smirked; he had doubted any cease-fire between the warring city-states would last very long. Venice's Doge, or Duke, was only a figurehead. It was the infamous Council of Ten who controlled Venice. “Aye, sir. I never go anywhere unarmed.”

It was Archer's turn to roll his eyes. “You and your weaponry.”

He patted the modified pistol hidden at his side. Reed had personally redesigned it, and he and Archer were the only two men aboard Enterprize who wore one. “It's saved our lives more than once before, sir.”

"Point taken.” Archer squinted in the distance. “Ah, here we are, and if our timing is right, I'll have the opportunity to introduce you to an old friend of mine.”

The longboat pulled alongside one of the docks and Reed helped secure it. Archer all but leaped onto the pier, with Malcolm close behind. He managed to avoid a herd of goats as it thundered past on its way to market, and winced as he brushed a rat off his boot without breaking stride. The rancid smell of wet straw tickled his nose, despite the aromatic garlic that hung from the market stalls.

“Traveo! There you are!” Archer called.

A dark-skinned man looked up and grinned widely at their approach. He took off his straw hat and waved it from his gondola. “Capitano Arciere! You've returned to Venice!”

Archer waved back and Malcolm raised an eyebrow. “Arciere?”

“That's 'Archer' in Italian, Malcolm. My surname's hard to pronounce here. In most cases, most of my acquaintances will give you a nickname anyway, for protection.”

“Understandable.” He approved of the caution. There were times, despite his captain's breezy attitude, that Archer took the safety of his crew seriously.

Archer laughed and addressed the young gondolier. He wore a plain homespun wool shirt and dark-colored pants that emphasized his powerful physique. “I hope you and your family are well?”

“Elisabetta just had our youngest, a strong and healthy boy. We named him Giovanni.” He inclined his head. “I hope you have enough time to visit us and see your namesake.”

If anything, Archer's countenance became more cheerful at the news. “You didn't have to do that, Traveo--”

The young man shook his head. “My wife insisted. After all, it was you and the Lady Eriana who helped save their lives. It's the least we can do to repay your kindness.”

“Let's not talk of debts right now, my friend.” Archer clapped him on the shoulder, then turned to Malcolm, whose command of the Venetian dialect was less than perfect. “Lieutenant Malcolm Reed, I'd like to introduce Traveo Buontempo. He's an experienced seafarer, despite his youth, and he knows the canals like the back of his hand. Traveo, Malcolm Reed, my first mate on boardEnterprize.”

Traveo bowed his head in acknowledgement and said, “It is an honor and a pleasure to meet you, Tenente Reed. Any friend of Il Capitano is a friend of mine.” He glanced at Archer again. “To the usual place, then?”

“To the usual place.” He stepped into the gondola, and motioned for Malcolm to do the same. “Come, Malcolm, I've arranged for lodging for the two of us. My wife will meet us there later.”

“Yes, sir.” Malcolm sighed and resigned himself to a trip through the murky canals, accompanied by Traveo's and Archer's booming laughter.

Milan, 1484

Paola sighed and fastened her veil more securely around her face. The bell of the cathedral, the Duomo di Milano, boomed over the stone palazzi, announcing that she was late. Again. She winced and quickened her steps, ignoring the stares of a group of noblewomen.
She wasn't from here, and the citizens found every opportunity to remind her of that fact. It was only through the patronage of her uncle, the famed Milanese banker Umbrico Sovale, that made her presence here acceptable. Paola's childhood had been a happy one, along the sunny Bay of Naples, until the Plague robbed her of her beloved family, including her mother Lesa. Umbrico took pity on her and welcomed her into his home.

Pity? Her mouth twisted in a grimace. More like seeing an opportunity for advancement. After all, the niece of a prominent financier was a prime candidate for marriage. Despite Umbrico's sympathy, he was obligated to take advantage of any chance to strengthen the Sovale family's position. Women had no say in their destinies; Paola was no different from any other.

Paola shoved the uncomfortable thought from her mind. She turned the corner and slipped through the iron gates of the Sovale family compound. The grandpalazzo paled in comparison to the ones owned by the ruling Sforza family, but it suited Umbrico's status. The smooth marble steps sparkled in the warm sunlight, and Paola quickly made her way into the portico.

Perhaps I can slip into the sewing room without being noticed...
“Paola! You are late! Again!”

No such luck. She groaned inwardly, but turned at the strident tone of her Aunt Lara. The silver-haired matriarch of the Sovale family looked every bit the part: her hair braided into a pleasing arrangement, her blue silk and satin gown edged with white lace and decorated with silver thread. Lara glared at Paola for a moment, then her face softened, her mouth curving into a smile.

“If anyone asks, you were with me, designing Lady Chiara Fellara's wedding gown.”

Paola blew out an unladylike sigh of relief. “My thanks, Lady Aunt.”

“Really, though, you must deport yourself more like a lady, Paola, especially now. We have an important visitor who wishes to meet you, and you must be presentable. Come, into your formal gown with you.”

“Aunt Lara--”

“Now, now. No time to dally, my niece. I will explain later.”
Paola sighed and obediently followed her aunt deeper into the women's part of the palazzo. The gold-gilted marble walls and brilliant tapestries were stark reminders of Umbrico Sovale's vast wealth. As they passed down a corridor of mirrors, Paola shivered in revulsion. The illusion of open space was just illusion. She longed for the azure waves of the Bay of Naples and the chant of the fishermen.

Lara chose a green silk gown that complemented Paola's fair skin. Her deft fingers wove gold chains within Paola's long, blonde-brown hair. “Per mio fe, we need to wash your hair in lemon juice again. You spend too much time with the academics, and it's starting to darken again.”

“Yes, Aunt Lara.”

“Here, this emerald necklace is perfect for this ensemble.” Lara carefully reached around and slipped it around Paola's neck. The jewel was about the size of a chicken egg, faceted and polished to perfection. Its weight hung like an albatross around Paola's throat.

Lara surveyed her niece with a critical eye, then nodded. “There. You're ready. Remember your are a representative of the House of Sovale.”

Paola stifled another sigh and answered, “I will remember, Aunt Lara.”

The two women hurried down the labyrinthine corridors of the palazzo, slowing at the sight of the wooden doors of the Grand Hall. Lara knocked and after a hushed invitation to enter, she opened the door and strode in, Paola following her.

Umbrico Sovale, master of the clan, stood at the curtained window, and next to him, was a dark-haired woman in an elaborate red gown and black veil. Paola recognized the style: it was Spanish, from the court of Queen Isabella, a distinctly different pattern of clothing, but no less lavish than the Milanese nobility.

Paola immediately dropped into a curtsey and lowered her eyes. Whoever this woman was, she was very important, to come here to Milan all the way from the Spanish court. The silence stretched on for several long seconds, then Paola felt a gentle, gloved hand under her chin.

“Look at me, child.” The tone was kindly, but still held a note of command. Her accent was very slight, but Paola's ears picked it up.
Slowly, she looked up at the speaker. The Spanish lady's face was strong rather than pretty, with her black hair caught up in a silver net, but there was something, some quality that told Paola that this woman was not all she seemed.

“What is your name, child?”

She swallowed hard, but managed to keep her voice steady. “I am Paola de Conti-Montagnari, niece of Umbrico Sovale of Milan.”

“I understand you are skilled weaver and dressmaker, with an eye for the aesthetic, are you not?”

“Yes, Signora, my aunt has taught me all she knows about the womanly arts.”

“Are you also skilled in music, the dance, the art of conversation?”

“I play the lute, dance the rondo and can entertain visitors.” Paola wondered why she was being asked these questions. Could this woman want her as one of her ladies? Her, the embarrassment of the Sovale family? Was it possible?

The woman smiled and nodded as if confirming something to herself. “Are you widely traveled?”

Paola felt a blush of shame color her cheeks. “No, my lady. I was born in Naples, but came here to Milan when I was very young. I have been here since.”

“Perhaps we should change that.” The woman looked over at Umbrico and Lara. “She will be a satisfactory addition to my retinue. Please make sure she is ready to depart in the morning.”

Umbrico took a deep breath and let it out. “Yes, my lady. She will be ready.”

Her mind spun with the abrupt change of her fortunes. “I--”
“My name is Lady Eriana Hernandez, wife of Captain John Archer.” She smiled. “Welcome to my house, Lady Paola.”
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