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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Salamander

Chpt 1-a


     “Lucifer,” said Cardinal De Medici, sweeping into the chilly anteroom, “here is your charge.  She is Salamander.”
         Lucifer dropped to his knee, kissing the Cardinal’s ring.  When he lifted his head, he saw a figure, small as a child, limping through the door.  She was a lizard, hobbling upright on her hind feet. No tail showed under the chain mail skirt that was her only garment. 
         The Cardinal continued brusquely, “You will take her to Florence and deliver her to the foundry master. Here are your papers and travel expenses.” And with that, he turned and strode back into his private apartments.
         Still on his knee, Lucifer looked directly into his charge’s crimson eyes.  Intelligence looked back. Inexplicably, Lucifer felt a need to assert his dominance.
         Rising to his feet, he tucked his papers into a pocket in the breast of his doublet.  “Come,” he commanded, “I have a carriage waiting.”
         “Signore,” the voice was sibilant, light, scarcely more than a whisper.  “I am small, weak and lame. We can progress more swiftly if you will carry me.”
         “Carry you?” he barked.  “How am I supposed to carry a salamander? You could burn me to ashes with a touch.”
         “If I chose to, but I do not so choose,” she replied.  “As long as I do the Cardinal’s will, then my husband and children will remain safe.  If I incinerate his favorite messenger, the Cardinal will punish those I love.  You will not be burned by me.”
         The Cardinal’s favorite messenger was neither a coward, nor a fool.  Lucifer watched the little creature limping toward him, then bent and swept her up, holding her perched on his arm against his left side like a skinny toddler.
         She was lighter in weight than he had expected, warm as a cat, with skin like brick-colored suede.  Her tiny hands caught hold of his doublet. “You’re so tall,” she gasped.  Then, after a moment, “Thank you, Signore.”

         As he strode through the halls of the palace, people stared, crossed themselves, then looked away.  The Cardinal’s servants had seen stranger things than a tall man with golden curls down his back, carrying a great lizard in his arms.
         In the courtyard, he lifted her into the waiting carriage, locked the door, and swung to the back of his own mount.  In time, the seven hills of Rome faded behind them into the autumn smoke.

         Dusk fell before they reached the inn Lucifer wanted.  The innkeeper and his wife were loyal to the Cardinal, and had more than once accommodated mysterious personages under Lucifer’s conveyance.  A private room was available.  Lucifer unlocked the door of the waiting carriage and looked inside.
         The heavy blankets provided for the occupant had been piled on the floor into a sort of nest.  She was curled in it, waiting patiently.
         “Come,” he said, reaching in and plucking her forth.  Her lame foot knocked against the door frame and she gasped, jerking her legs up and gripping his doublet with her queer little hands.
         “Your foot is sore?”  he asked, as he carried her into the inn.  Servants and other travelers stared after him.  Salamanders were seldom seen outside of the furnaces where they lived and worked.
         “My foot was broken yesterday.  It is quite sore.”
         “How did you break your foot?” he asked, carrying her up the stairs.
         “My foot was broken by the Cardinal’s torturer.  That was  shortly after he crushed my husband’s foot, and just before he was prepared to begin the same treatment on my children.  I agreed to attempt the task my husband refused.  My dear husband, whose honor demands that he allow his wife and children to suffer for his beliefs.”  Her quiet voice was even and steady.
         “The Cardinal works to do God’s will.” Lucifer said, opening the door and carrying her into the small chamber. “Here is your bed.  I will sleep on the floor outside the door.  What would you like to eat?”
         “If I may have a fire, I will sleep there.  You may as well use the bed.  I won’t run away.”
         “You’ll sleep in the fire?” he questioned, startled.  “I’ve never conveyed one of your people before.  Is there anything else I should know?”
          “The warmer I can be, the sooner I will heal.  If the landlord would allow me the kitchen hearth, I would agree to clean his chimney and tend all the cooking tonight.  I will not run away,” she repeated.  “Your Godly Cardinal holds my children.”
         Lucifer debated with himself.  Were Salamanders loving parents?  He didn’t know.  He had conveyed many things for the Cardinal, always delivering them safely to their destination. A crocodile and two lions had taxed his ingenuity.  Two orphaned children, being delivered to the care of their grandparents, had wrought with his heart. Kindness, gentleness, comfort were not traits required by a messenger, and he seldom regretted their lack, but those frightened, grieving children still haunted his dreams.   The mermaid he had brought from Venice had wept day and night, yet he knew that if he had opened her cask to give her the sunlight and fresh water she pled for, she would have strangled him in an instant.  He knew about mermaids, but salamanders?
         A hesitant knock at the door interrupted his thoughts. He set the salamander gently on the bed, set hand on the hilt of his dagger and opened the door a crack.
         “Signore,” the innkeeper said, bowing low, “I am told your charge is a salamander?”
         “Yes?” Lucifer replied, “What of it?”
         “Signore, Madonna, if you would honor our hearth – we have oak and chestnut logs, dry and solid, we could fetch coal from the blacksmith . . . “
         “Coal would burn too hot for your chimney and weaken the mortar,” the salamander said. “Oak and chestnut would please me greatly though, if my – guard -- will permit  me?”
         Her red eyes and the landlord’s brown ones rested on Lucifer.
         “Do you have a soul?” he asked her.
         “What?” she fluted, “Of course I have a soul!  I have been baptized and confirmed in the church. I take communion weekly with the other glassworkers in our guild. Why do you ask?”
         “Will you swear by your hope of heaven to cause no harm nor to try to escape?” Lucifer demanded.
         “I do so swear,” she readily replied.
         “Very well,” he agreed, “but I will be within reach of you the whole time.”
         “Perhaps your coachman can lend you a pike then,” she replied.  “Any nearer than that, and you will blister.”
         He carried her to the kitchen and put her down near the great hearth.  She slid into the fire like an otter into a creek.  The flames dimmed, then surged up around her. She crouched atop the largest log and wove the flames deftly to lick up the sides of the chimney, to caress the pots, and the joint roasting on the spit.  Her injured foot rested in a bed of coals.  Heat smote Lucifer in the face and he pulled away. 
         She nested in the heart of the fire, murmuring to herself, trilling softly like a blackbird.  Lucifer stood beside the hearth, getting in the way of the cooks and pot boys, sweat soaking his clothing, plastering his fine blonde hair to his skull, trickling down his neck in rivulets.  The salamander whispered to the kitchen workers as they approached the hearth, and soon one stepped up to Lucifer, bearing a long iron spit.
     “This will keep her within your reach, and let you get out of our way.  With a salamander to bless our hearth we have much to do tonight.”
     So, armed with the spit, and seated on a cask beside the hearth, Lucifer stood watch.  The cook seemed to be filling every pot in the kitchen.  Women wrapped in shawls and cloaks brought more crocks and pans to set in the flames, then left to stand shyly in the inn yard, chattering together like a flock of hens until their food had been cooked.  The inn-keeper’s wife, a rosy plump pullet with eyes as bright as beads sidled in and held quiet converse with the salamander, and Lucifer heard his charge whisper, “ . . . the joys of the marriage bed.  They must both drink from the same cup and then . . .”  The rest was lost as the cook bustled forward with a spitted goose to sizzle over the flames.
     The entire village feasted that night.  As soon as one kettle was taken off the fire, another one was ready to go on.  Heat poured forth from the hearth, and log after log of good dry hardwood was devoured by flames.  Every woman who left the inn carried a covered tankard, and a secret smile.
         Lucifer savored the delicacies passed to him by the beaming cook.  The smells of roasting and baking, of simmering and frying wreathed him round like memories. The Salamander made no move to escape, but curled in the midst of the flames, directing the heat with flickers of her fingers.  With the long day’s ride, with the warmth of the kitchen, with a full belly and a tankard of the good local wine, Lucifer relaxed, nodded, dozed.