Red Queen to White Queen, Part 23: Mist on the Mountain

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Over the next year, on Mondays and Thursdays, I will introduce consecutive passages from my new novel, Red Queen to White Queen. The book explores how a Colombian matriarch came to exert a lifelong dominance over her family, until a newcomer threatens her reign. At the end of each chapter, you will find a recipe from the book.

Cast of Characters:
Magdalena (Magda): Already in her 80s when the book begins, Magda is the most powerful figure in her family. Flashbacks explore the life that made her who she is.
Rosalba: Magda’s daughter, who has devoted her life to the care of her mother.
Immaculata (Imma): Magda’s lifelong servant
Dante: Magda’s husband
Seňora Moreno: Family friend of long standing
Desiderio: Magda’s son xxx
Don Claudio & Don Cosimo: Italian brothers, friends of the familyx
Father Martens: Magda’s Belgian tutor xxx

xxx Click here for Part I.xxx

Over 2500 metres above sea level, Bogota was far colder than he had expected of a country with the equator running through it. In the huge stone houses, the cold settled in and never really left. Dante felt it penetrate to his very bones.

Dante was not immediately useful to the brothers Romano upon arrival in the capital. He spent the first week on his stomach, his bottom completely raw. Each morning, the housekeeper bustled in with a cup of thick chocolate, followed throughout the day by tiny cups of hot, sugared coffee.

Don Claudio looked down in amused sympathy at the young man before him: in pain, cold, and dizzy from the altitude “You’ll get used to it,” he said. “You have to give your blood time to warm up.”

By the end of the week, both dizziness and blisters had disappeared. One evening at dusk, as Dante was dozing in his room, he awoke to the uneasy feeling that something was standing in the shadows. There, in the corner, was an enormously round bundle, out of which emerged two thin legs ending in bare feet.

Understanding came in a rush, followed by frustration. During the river voyage, the boat had passed by hordes of beautiful young women, all laughingly beckoning from the shore. Time and again, the brothers had forestalled him with promises of the delights awaiting him in Bogotá. This impossibly round creature standing in the corner was apparently the reward for his patience.

Exasperated, Dante beckoned to the bundle. What was the Spanish phrase that would send her away without wounding her pride? As she moved into the candlelight, Dante perceived wide cheekbones and beautiful dark eyes slanted at the corners. She smiled, just long enough to reveal a glimpse of the most perfect white teeth he had ever seen, The deep pink cheeks were those of someone raised at altitude. He was captivated.

Black eyes cast down, she lifted a hand to her garment, revealing a shoulder cast in the very lightest shade of bronze. Dante realized that what he mistook for over-round curves was simply layers and layers of cloth. She was indeed very sturdily built in the way of the mountain people: strong, heavy bones covered in sleek muscle. As she shrugged out of the layers of padding, there seemed no end to the shining black hair. Dante reached out for a handful, sliding it between his fingers.

Shortly after she had slipped from his room, a smiling Don Claudio entered it. He held up a hand to forestall Dante’s stammered thanks.

“This was a very special gift, to speed your convalescence. We normally do not invite such young ladies to our home: this is a highly respectable neighbourhood. Once you are completely well, with some money in your pocket, we will suggest one or two houses you may frequent at your leisure. Colombian authorities are very civilized about such things. All the ladies who work in these houses are examined on a monthly basis by doctors paid by the state. Anyone without a clean bill of health is turned out into the street, a dreadful fate for any woman. My brother Cosimo examined the certificate of the young lady who visited your room just now, verifying that it was signed just this morning. I trust she met your expectations?”

Dante nodded sleepily. Don Claudio, however, was clearly in the mood to chat.

“As I said, this is a very respectable neighbourhood. As you come and go, you will see the unmarried daughters of the houses, accompanied by their duennas, as in Italy. They are not to be approached without an introduction. You will have to be work hard and rise high before you’re in any position to be introduced. Do you understand, Dante?”

Dante was willing to agree to anything Don Claudio said, if only he could get some sleep. He did not suspect how soon he would be called upon to keep his promise.

****
Out of bed for the first time, Dante spent the day exploring the brothers’ house. Large and spacious, it was decorated with the same heavy furniture Dante’s parents had inherited from their own parents: he might never have left Italy. Dante speculated as to why neither brother had married. He guessed that neither wished to disturb the perfect amity of their relationship by taking a wife. Perhaps if they had been lucky enough to find suitable brides at exactly the same time, sisters possibly, they might have taken that step. Neither brother seemed to feel the lack of a wife: their housekeeper made sure they were fed and clothed, while the laundress came in daily to clean. Their baser physical needs, he knew, were taken care of elsewhere.

One of the brothers was certainly an equestrian, he concluded, gazing at the art that crowded the walls. Only one painting, located in the vestibule, differed substantially from the others. Dante gazed in delight upon the shifting pattern of blues and greens: it was the same vision one might glimpse through a kaleidoscope, purchased at a fair.

As he studied the painting, Dante’s attention was caught by a movement outside the window. Looking out, he saw a young woman of perhaps 18 years old. She bore no resemblance to the beauty he had recently taken to his bed. Dark eyebrows cut a sharp swath across her face. The cheekbones were high and angled, the skin bronzed. Here was a face that could sit on a marble pedestal and impress visitors a hundred, a thousand years hence. The girl had a sturdy, strong-backed stance, feet firmly planted, as though to claim the very ground she walked upon.

Whatever Dante had imagined when Don Claudio described young ladies raised in respectable houses, this was not it. Yet she was clearly not a servant. Servants here tended to be barefoot, clad in a single shapeless garment and a wool poncho for outdoors. This woman was dressed in fine black wool, closely tailored to her body.

The arrival of her duenna confirmed his suspicions that this was indeed a daughter of the house.

“Señorita Magda, your father is already seated at the table.”
Dante noted that the duenna used the formal “su,” rather than the more familiar “tu.” His intuition told him that the use of the more formal term was not merely due to their relative social positions. The young woman’s very appearance demanded respect. Dante could imagine referring to her in the third person even while making love.

“Where did that thought come from?” he wondered. She certainly held no physical attraction for him.

The young woman began walking toward her duenna. Dante was about to leave the window when he saw her stop at the threshold of her house. Turning in a slow circle she examined every corner of the garden. Dante did not understand her intention until she looked directly into his window. It was too late for him to draw back behind the curtain. Their eyes met, and Dante felt the sudden impact of a strong, commanding personality. Their gazes held only a moment, before she turned and stepped over her own threshold.

****
Check back on Thursday, May 12, for Part 18. All text is protected under copyright to Susan Young de Biagi. Images are in the public domain.

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Susan Young de Biagi is a regular contributor to prdn.

As a trained historian, my twin passions are writing and teaching. In addition to Cibou – my first novel – I have written or co-written three books of non-fiction and authored a number of digital educational products.

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