Written in 2013. Set in a European port town in an alternate Renaissance.
The nine year old Concordia Sabelli moves through the newly reconstructed Aranciamare Palace with a sense of purpose. Mama has drilled into her to which parts it is safe to travel, and which parts are out of bounds due to floors she might break through into the waters beneath, and from which there would be doubtless no return. She is trusted now to remember such things, and feels pride in her newly adult responsibility - that she no longer requires supervision. Later she will have to go out into the city to gather more tokens, but there are no adults available to take her at the moment, and time is short - this year’s Exhibition is in just over a week, and the deadline for acquiring tokens is less than two days away.
Last year, she gave her token to her friend Isabella, in exchange for a beautiful hair brush, with an inlaid mother of pearl handle. She had wanted it ever since Isabella had first shown it to her, and it had seemed like a good trade at the time. When she had told Aunt Delphine, who was in charge of the Exhibition, about the trade that she had made, Concordia had been expecting praise. The hairbrush was beautiful, but also valuable, and the tokens had no value themselves outside of Exhibition. Aunt Delphine had smiled, and said that yes, it was a good trade, she supposed, and from that “supposed” and the subtle arch of Aunt Delphine’s immaculate eyebrow Concordia knew that she had made a mistake. “Not all value is weighed in money, Concordia - you, a Sabelli, will be dancing to another’s tune at the Exhibition, and Isabella is already your friend. Didn’t you sell yourself a little cheaply?”
Concordia wasn’t quite sure what Aunt Delphine had meant - one rarely was where Aunt Delphine was concerned - but the sting of the gentle rebuke had nonetheless remained with her. This year, Concordia would put on her own tableau. She was young for it, but her Cousin Inigo had presented his first tableau at seven, although it had taken him until his tenth birthday to win. People were still talking about that four years later. It was clear what was expected of her.
But Concordia cannot present a tableau, let alone win, without tokens. Every child in the guild receives one, and she must collect as many as she can to stand the best possible chance of winning. Fortunately, the building works are now sufficiently advanced that several of the important families within the guild are now actually living within the bounds of the palace, and there are opportunities for advancement even when it is not possible to travel. Concordia was in fact looking for Anna, the daughter of one of the palace staff, but it appears that she has gone to market with her mother. Concordia curses her poor timing - there might have been other children in the market, and she could probably have gone too, if she’d known.
Coming out of the kitchens, Concordia notes with disappointment that the cook is preparing fish stew again. As a guild with fishing interests, this is everyday fare within Gilda Sabelli, but Concordia has a particular liking for roast suckling pig, which she thinks is the most wonderful thing she has ever tasted. Tonight the guild is not entertaining, but Concordia had hoped perhaps that mama had asked for it anyway. But there are more immediate things to worry about. She pushes her arm against the wall to steady herself as she rounds the corner of the kitchen corridor at speed, full of nascent alternative plans, and falls over the huddled body of her little cousin Sandro, who is clearly crying, but trying not to make a sound while doing it. Sadly for both of them, being inaudible has not rendered him insubstantial and the two children end up in a heap of disorganised limbs.
Sandro starts crying more loudly, and Concordia dabs at his eyes ineffectively with her sleeve. She knows what is likely to be the problem. Sandro’s older brother Vigo is Concordia’s age, and enjoys rough and tumble games. Sandro and Concordia don’t, but Vigo can be quite insistent that they join in. Concordia has the knack of generally having something pressing to get on with that requires her to be elsewhere, and is thus usually safe. Sandro tends to be less lucky, and she can see that he is sporting a new bruise on the back of his hand that is probably the result of Vigo getting over-enthusiastic with a practice sword again. Concordia has already tried to persuade Vigo to part with his token, but Vigo has plans to trade it to an older girl for a decorative eating dagger which he can at least pretend is a real sword.
“Did he win again?” asks Concordia, but Sandro shakes his head, his tears starting to dry up as Concordia comforts him, gently patting the injured hand.
Sandro shrugs. “Thomaso threw a stone at me in the academy yard.” Thomaso is a friend of Vigo’s. “But now Vigo wants to play again. I don’t want to fight him. He’ll hit me on the hand, and it will hurt more.”
Concordia makes soothing noises. “Don’t worry, Sandro. I think I know how to get Vigo to leave you alone for an hour or two. But I need tokens for my tableau. Can I have yours if I do?”
Sandro nods slowly. He is too young to be much interested in Exhibition. “Mine’s a red doublet,” he says. “It looks nice.”
“Well, perhaps you can wear it in my tableau then,” ponders Concordia, and they shake hands on the deal. This is already ingrained, even at this young age, in families like theirs.
Vigo is not hard to find. His calls for Sandro are almost loud enough to shake the walls of the palace. When he spots Concordia heading towards him, he halts mid-bellow.
“Have you seen Sandro?” he asks.
“Yes,” she replies. “I took him to the nurse.” She holds back, noting the twinge of guilt that crosses Vigo’s face.
“Someone threw a rock at him at the academy today.” There, another flash, anger. It grew from the guilt, as Concordia’s mama would say. The hook is in.
“What? Who dares? Sandro’s only little!” Vigo may enjoy a scrap, but he does love his little brother. “Who did this?”
“I shouldn’t tell tales,” says Concordia, letting conflicted emotions show in her face, “and anyway, you can’t get to him, he’s not in the palace. It happened at the academy.”
“Come on, Concordia, it’s my brother. And anyway, I know a way out through one of the off limits areas - the boarding planks are loose and I can slip between them. You can keep a lookout for me, right.”
“You know I’m not supposed to, Vigo. I could get in trouble.” She stares at her fingernails.
“Look, I’ll give you my token.” Concordia looks pensive for a few seconds, although actually, she is surprised they got here this quickly. Sometimes, you’re just lucky.
“Well, alright, but you have to promise not to say who you heard from, and you have to agree to be as sneaky as you can be, so you aren’t spotted in the city.” Concordia thinks that will probably slow him down enough to buy Sandro a bit more peace. Armed with a sense of righteousness and a stout stick, Vigo is soon on his way in search of Thomaso.
“You must be very pleased,” purrs Aunt Delphine, as she delicately adds another microscopic silk stitch to her embroidery. Concordia does, indeed, look somewhat like the cat who has got the cream. She had been expecting this summons since her tableau had been declared Prime Exhibit. Having managed to gather twice as many tokens as her nearest competitor, she had had twice the number of helpers at her disposal, as well as more varied wardrobe and props. Concordia was aware from the overheard gossip of her mother’s secretaries that Eliza, her director, was not felt to be this year’s most talented, but in the end the greater resources she had been able to obtain meant that as a polished performance, their tableau was widely regarded as the favourite. Some very nice things have been said about her performance as the tragic heroine, but Concordia does not set too much score in these remarks, being well aware that it is politic for those in her mother’s employ to praise her. She had enjoyed bringing everyone together, and there was always a grown up to talk to when things had got hard or confusing. People were tricky, but rewarding.
“It was pretty easy,” admitted Concordia. “I had a lot of fun.”
The eyebrow again. Stitch. Stitch. “Easy and fun for you, perhaps. Less easy for Vigo and Alessandro. My sources tell me Alessandro is now more commonly referred to as ‘tattlemouth’ and as for Vigo, well, I am not sure when I will consider he has adequately understood the risks he took. He has certainly made it very clear that he finds the confines of his room extremely uncomfortable. I did, of course, explain to him that that was rather the point of the whole exercise. This did not seem to console him.”
Stitch. Stitch. Stitch. Concordia’s heart fell. She had honestly thought that Aunt Delphine was going to congratulate her this year as the youngest ever Exhibition winner, but it was clear that she had messed up again. Stitch. Stitch.
“You’re going to punish me, aren’t you?”
Stitch. “Why would you think that? How could you have been responsible for Vigo’s little escapade? And yet how odd that you would feel responsible.” Stitch. “Have you ever heard of essentialism, Concordia?”
Now Concordia is really confused. She wasn’t being told off? And what did essentialism have to do with anything. “I think so. Isn’t that where they give up food to be more virtuous?”
“Not exactly. Essentialists hold that the food that one eats can shape the character of your soul. They abstain from certain foods in order to speed their soul in the afterlife. What do you think of that? Be honest.”
“It seems pretty silly, I suppose,” answers Concordia, really not sure where all this is going.
Stitch. “I really couldn’t say,” replies her Aunt. “But one thing I do know is that no benefit comes without a cost. Sometimes you pay the price, sometimes other people do. But the Essentialists draw strength from their sacrifice, and perhaps it is that strength which allows them to achieve the greatness necessary to live a virtuous life.” Stitch. “Are you strong, Concordia?”
“I … think so.”
“But you don’t know, do you? The youngest ever Exhibition winner, and you’re still not sure. Perhaps it’s time you proved your strength to yourself.” Stitch. “A simple test, perhaps, since it is your first time. We usually dine on fish rather than meat, so it shouldn’t be too much of a hardship to go without meat for a week, should it? It would make me happy, to know that you were willing and able to pay the price to achieve your ambitions.”
Concordia is still not quite sure what is going on here, but she does know enough to know that everyone, even mama, the most important person in the guild, likes to keep Aunt Delphine happy. And they probably won’t even have meat in the next week, anyway. She offers her hand, and they shake on the deal.
It is an intimate dinner, just family, and Concordia’s mama and papa are in an expansive mood, clearly flushed with their daughter’s success. The wine is flowing freely, and the fish soup is quickly polished off. Aunt Delphine leads a toast to Concordia’s ambition, and there are smiles all around the table. Even Vigo seems cheerful - it seems that Aunt Delphine has finally deemed his penance sufficient and he is no longer confined to his room. Concordia’s mama taps her goblet, and silence quickly falls.
“Tonight we celebrate my daughter’s success, and hope that it will encourage all to greater things. But success should be rewarded, so, because it is Concordia’s favourite, we shall have a special treat.”
The doors to the dining hall swings open and the cooks carry in a roast suckling pig, cooked to perfection and glistening with succulent juices. The platter is laid in front of Concordia, who looks at it with a mixture of horror and longing. She can see Aunt Delphine to one side - her expression neutral, for all the world absorbed in conversation with Concordia’s papa. Concordia knows differently, though. She feels as though she has never left Aunt Delphine’s chamber and once again, she does not understand the rules of the game that she is playing.
Concordia’s mother’s brow wrinkles in puzzlement. “Tuck in, dear. We’re celebrating!”
Concordia tries to explain. “I … but …” but she can smell the delicate crispy flavours rising with the steam coming off the animal, see the fat attached to the crisp crackling glisten, and her willpower falters. She takes a slice of the juicy meat and places a piece into her mouth, feeling the sweet flesh rend between her teeth, and the tangy juices emerge from the corner of her mouth. But the sublime flavour has an aftertaste of shame.
Aunt Delphine continues her conversation. Only Concordia sees the disappointment in her eyes. Later that night, Concordia Sabelli will tell herself that never again will she be so weak. She will eat neither meat nor fish until she is the most powerful woman in the city. Most of those in a position to know, Concordia and Aunt Delphine included, would say that that goal will be achieved fifteen years later, at a solemn ceremony where the Masters of the Gilda unanimously appoint Concordia, clad in an exquisitely tailored mourning dress that could have ransomed a prince, to succeed her mother as head of the Gilda at the age of twenty five. But by that time Concordia has grown used to a diet of dairy, vegetables, and grains, and perhaps she thinks there are other things that are worth the price.