12 The band of soldiers
We stand upon the execution grounds in Prati, Rome. The sun stands on it's highest, and the brimming heat is almost visible in the air. The garrison has been ordered to guard the narrow piazza where the crowd has gathered. Upon a wooden platform, two men address to crowd with roaring voices, spurring on the masses. A defending retort reverberates through the piazza.
One of the men fell of the platform and landed on the ground, gasping, grabbing his head. The echoes of the sound still bounce from the paved grounds and Lorenzo, together with most of his comrades look about, confused.
Whoever threw the first stone was unidentifiable.
I see Giotto frown and move, but the crowd bars his way. Soldiers and civilians alike are in full uproar, men and women shouting, children crying above it all. Lorenzo curses and drops his weight lower, together with several others he attempts to halt the mass, shouting at the people to stand back.
I look around and spy a possible assailant surge forward, pushing through the crowd with force and say; 'look behind you Lorenzo, he's getting away.'
"Get back! Stand down!" I hear their commander shout.
'Incompetente,' I say.
"Secure the perimeter!"
"Where are they!?" Lorenzo strains under the pressure of the mass.
"I can't-," Jacobo shouts, being shrugged off by two rioters he meant to restrain, "-hear you!"
'Back there idiot boy,' I say.
I sigh. Mia, dear Mia, look at these idiots. Not even trying to listen to what others are saying. Your own beautiful idiot son never listened to a word I said either. Why is it that so many don't hear my words? Why is it that so many refuse to listen?
Even after this incident, the tensions keep rising up in the city. Luckily for Lorenzo and his comrades, half their troop is given a few days to travel to Moncalieri, where they are to join the local garrison. Pietro won't join them. He's to stay in the capital and the goodbye between Jacobo and his brother is slow but imminent.
So while they ride towards the North-west, they talk of the French border. Only Lorenzo has been there before since he had been deployed in Turin. They talk of the mountains, of the peace and quiet they will have there, and of the tranquillity of the city itself.
After being on the road for half a week, they come to a halt on a charming piazza opposite two restaurants in Genoa. Lorenzo, Jacobo and Ulisse are standing across the street binding the mounts while Giotto is chatting up some girl who took an interest in the arriving soldiers. The rest of their regiment disappears in the narrow streets. Reassembly would not be until morning. Genoa was a port city, and a large one at that, there was much to be discovered and many would stay up all night indulging in various entertainments.
A woman standing in the doorway of one of the restaurants smiles at them as Lorenzo and his friends cross the square and enter.
Fragrance billows out of the doorway. A second young woman appears, her brown hair brushed to a high gloss. She eyes Lorenzo, then she eyes Ulisse, upon which she appends a murmur about Ulisse' size to a demurring comment about fetching the Maitresse, and they step through the doorway and into the perfumed room.
"This is not my area," says Ulisse," can't we eat somewhere else?"
"Don't be such a prude," Giotto slams an arm around him and Jacobo.
Copper lamps hang from the ceilings on slender copper chains, and the walls are draped with silks. The floor appears carpeted, a deep pile that the feet sink down into. The room is ringed with a series of reclining couches of carved dark wood. Two of the couches are occupied with public couples, another with three of the house's women.
Lorenzo and Jacobo claim one of the empty couches for themselves, adopting a relaxed posture. Ulisse is sitting more gingerly at the far end. His mind appears to be everywhere but here. Vistas of endless ridiculousness open up before them, Giotto starts considering the women before he even orders some food.
For Ulisse, I realise, this experience is wholly new and highly illicit. Compounding my sense of the ridiculous was the sudden acute awareness that I was accompanying a chaste soldier to his first brothel.
Of the three women, one is the glossy-haired woman who had greeted the men at the door, the other is a brunette, who is idly chatting with the third, a blonde whose dress is mostly unlaced. The brunette approaches and takes their order while another girl switches places with the one in the doorway. Giotto shoves his elbow against Lorenzo' ribcage and comments that she is wearing nothing under her dress.
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It doesn't take her long to return and put food on the table, accompanied by a bottle of red wine, after which she sits down and puts her arm around Ulisse' neck.
"Well," Lorenzo says to Ulisse, "you wanted to eat? Then eat, don't let it go to waste."
"This is complicated."
"Complicated? What part? Need help with chewing?"
"Not what I meant."
"What are you saying?" asks the girl. "Are you Italian?"
"We are," Lorenzo says, "we're soldiers."
"Don't understand," she says.
"What's the thing with this place? Why does she only speak Liguria?" Ulisse asks. "Do I have to let her put her arm around my neck?"
Oh, sweet innocent Ulisse, your naïve nature brightens my day.
"Certainly," Lorenzo says, "Genoa has abolished the brothels except those close to the docks. Officially, this is a restaurant."
The girl is wearing a one-piece dress. She leans against the table and smiles. "You like me?" she asks Ulisse.
"He adores you," Lorenzo says, "but he doesn't speak Liguria."
"You do, very well. Where did you come from?" Asks the lady.
"And you will stay here now for a little while?"
"No, we're not here for long."
"Tell her we have to go," says Ulisse, "tell her we don't have a lot of money."
"My friend is shy," Lorenzo says, "a shy idiot."
"Tell him I love him."
Lorenzo tells him.
"Will you shut your mouth and get us out of here?" Ulisse says. The lady has placed another arm around his neck.
"Tell him he is mine," she says.
Lorenzo tells him.
"Will you get us out of here?"
"Tell him he is a beautiful boy," the lady says.
"You are a beautiful boy."
"Who says so?" Ulisse asks, "you or her?"
"She does. I'm just your interpreter."
That evening, hours later, I find myself being gambled away in a game of cards in one of the taprooms. My heart grows heavy when I part ways with Lorenzo and his comrades. I see them leave, laughter passing their lips - leaving me on the ever-growing pile of riches in the middle of the table - while they rise from their seats and all but carry each other towards the door.
I see them disappear, as soon as that door slams shut behind their backs and I only catch a last glimpse of Lorenzo's ash blonde locks through the coloured glass of the window. I still hear their laughter even when they are ought to be far beyond hearing distance.
'Goodbye,' I say, 'Lorenzo Baradigi. Even though our days together were less than those with Mia, and less conversational, I will treasure your kind smile and the whispered secrets under the covers of your bed. I hope you value your days, those with and without your dear Jacobo. Live, and be safe, so we might meet again.'
At the end of the night, my new owner is a merchant, who lays me in between his goods on the market he frequents.
'Ah merchant, I once knew a man like you, I was good friends with his mother, you see.'
Mia, dear Mia. Look where I end up these days. A forgotten stick in a dog's mouth, a talisman for a lovesick poet and soldier alike, a gift to a heathen Goddess, now a souvenir lounging and waiting for my new owner in between these other trinkets. I tried talking to a cup, you know, hoping there might be another like me. Another soul trapped inside an inanimate object.
Basir, my poet, did you find peace? You with your restless heart and romantic mind. Do you like it, being dead, stripped from your human body? Are you gone? Have you gone to another place? Have you become a three as well, my dear poet, resting on the edge of a desert, growing your roots in the sand? I remember how it feels - marvellous - isn't it? Can you see the sand, the rocks, the yellow grass? Can you see the shadows on the red stones of the vast wasteland? Do you admire the flocks of sheep? Or have you sprouted in a vast forest, with nothing but greenery around you, and birds to perch upon your branches?
Or have you fallen under man' axe as well?