Monday, June 25, 2012

Story of the Week: The Tavern Wench of Venice

In "The Tavern Wench of Venice" from Silver Blade (Spring 2012), Molly N. Moss mixes fantasy elements into Renaissance Italy and seasons the mix with references to Shakespeare's plays. Leona has recently taken a job as a tavern wench at the Hooked Leviathan. All is not well for her employer Benito, though. A rival tavern--the Flaming Chalice owned by Silvano, who arrived only two fortnights ago--has drawn away all Benito's business and Silvano's patrons wait in a line that snakes down the streets past the Hooked Leviathan. Even elves are queuing up to eat at Silvano's Flaming Chalice. Benito is certain Silvano is using magic.

“Nearly two hundred years! That’s how long my family has made the finest ravioli in Ravenna, if not all of Venice. A newcomer can’t best me, unless he uses magic.”

The use of "unauthorized" sorcery is illegal and the inquisitors have already investigated Silvano, but as Benito argues, the inquisitors can be bribed.

Leona winced, seeing her employer watch his livelihood and family pride vanish into a rival’s possession. “If a tavern-keeper could observe Silvano, they could tell the inquisitors where to look for proof of his witchcraft. Then the inquisitors would have to take action.”

Benito clapped his hands together so loud that both Leona and Tommaso [Benito's son-in-law and assistant cook] jumped. “Good thinking, girl!” Studying her, he suggested, “I’m too well known, hereabouts, and so is Tommaso. But you, fanciulla, have lived only two months in Ravenna. They’d not recognize you. And with so much business, Silvano is certain to need help of some kind.”

Arguing that the ruse will be good practice for her future as an actress, Benito convinces her to spy for him. Benito and Tommaso cut her hair and dress her as a boy. She chooses the name Mercutio--one of her favorite characters--and succeeds in landing a job in Silvano's kitchen washing dishes, but does Silvano suspect she is not the blacksmith's apprentice runaway whom she pretends to be? She notices nothing peculiar on her first night of work. An old crone is the head cook and Silvano spends most of his time conversing with his patrons in the dining room. By chance she finds a single ravioli stuck in the bottom of a pot. She pries it free and tastes it.

A cheese too exquisite for words melted on her tongue, bursting into rich and creamy flavor. Ecstasy eased every sore muscle in her body....

Now she knows at least part of his secret: "a cheese more miraculous than manna from heaven." When her washing is done, she beds down in the kitchen as Silvano suggested. Strange dreams trouble her sleep. She wanders through Ravenna's twisting streets with the footfalls of an invisible pursuer closing in.

She flung herself to her knees on the steps of a church, crying out to Mother Mary to lead her home. Then the fog dissipated and she saw the sign of the Hooked Leviathan. Judas hung from the sign by a rope around his neck, and his gaze met hers and he said, “There’s no mercy for a servant who proves false to their master.” He raised a hand to his lips and blew hard, and a fine powder dusted Leona’s face.

She wakes up in a dimly lit cavern with Silvano and the monstrous secret behind his cheese.

No, I'm not going to tell you what the secret is. You'll have to find that out on your own. The story ends well for Leona, but she barely escapes. Moss creates an engaging tale that seamlessly mixes fantasy elements into an historical setting. The characters are well-drawn and the villain is appropriately slippery, covering his evil core with charm. The idea of a female actor may be an anachronism but this is fantasy so I think we can make an allowance for it since it's key to the plot.

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