My InterFiction Badge stops glowing and I blink in the bright sunlight as I take in my surroundings. I am in a sort of covered patio, and from what I’ve seen in pictures, I guess I am in Italy. Looking through the pillars, I can see over the balcony to the silver sweep of the Grand Canal below. Other, equally grand palazzos line the canal and there is a great deal of boat traffic going to and fro.
In front of me is the character I have come to interview: Gemma Caloprini. In my t-shirt and jeans, I feel suddenly very under-dressed, particularly since Gemma is haughtily looking down her nose at me… an impressive feat considering that I am several inches taller than her. Red, wavy hair billows out from her head in a mess that looks as though someone gave it their best shot and then ran up the white flag. She fidgets and paces as she greets me with a nervous energy. I briefly consider advising her to take up knitting or rock-climbing… something to give that energy a constructive place to go.
I smile and lean against a pillar. Gemma’s haughty attitude making me feel rebellious. “Good morning, Gemma,” I say genially. “Thank you for speaking with me today. Can you start out by telling me a little bit about yourself?”
The nose lifts just a little higher. “I’m Gemma Caloprini. Our family is one of the oldest in Venice and we’ve been on the Grand Council for centuries. Although, to tell you the truth, we won’t be much longer. We’re all girls, you understand. Papa’s trying to find me a worthy husband, but it’s not easy. There aren’t many of the best families left to choose from.”
“I see.” I jot down her answer and glance around a bit more. Glass-paned doors close me off from a large room inside the palazzo. Inside them, Gemma’s maid is keeping an eye on the two of us. I can also see one of her sisters where she sits embroidering, and another is attempting to force music out of a spinet… the spinet appears to be winning the argument. “Can you tell me a little bit about your world?”
Gemma gives a rather brittle laugh and her eyes flicker toward the palazzo interior, where her maid sits watchfully. “If you’ve seen one palazzo, you’ve seen them all. For fresh air, I come out here. For exercise, I climb the stairs. For company, I talk to my sisters. It bores me witless,” she adds defiantly. “At least, growing up in the convent, they gave us work to do. Lacemaking, dancing-lessons, and of course prayer and fasting. I used to dream about the day Papa would come and take us away, but it turns out…” her voice is wistful now… “it turns out that home is just as much a prison as the convent. Don’t tell Papa I said that.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t,” I reply. “I’m sorry to hear that life is so confining for you.” I nibble on the eraser of my pencil thoughtfully. “If you could have just one wish, what would it be?”
“Oh, ciel.” Gemma’s eyes sparkle. “I often think, if I’d been a boy, I could go where I want and do what I want. But then I wouldn’t be me, would I? I’d be loud and smelly. Ugh. Maybe I’d like to be a—a plebeian, you know, just an ordinary person. But I suppose people of that kind don’t care about freedom to begin with.”
I preserve a tactful silence. Just long enough for Gemma to remember that she’s definitely not talking to a fellow patrician.
Her cheeks become ever so slightly pink. “I mean that as a patrician, naturally I was born to govern and command the world. Being shut up all day is particularly galling to people of our sort. I think I would be happiest married, actually. Married women have more freedom than the rest of us. Just so long as Papa chooses someone who’s not old, or vicious. That’s my wish.”
I lean forward, intrigued. “What qualities would you consider to be ideal traits in a husband?”
“Noble blood, of course. It’s not just wise; it’s the law. But he had best be young, and good-looking, and–tractable. Easily led. Papa is not tractable at all. That’s the problem.”
“Hmmm,” I muse. I eye her a bit, trying to figure this strange character out. Her face is an open book, but it is almost like talking to two different people. In one instant she can strike me as being inexcusably arrogant, and yet, there is something unutterably sad about her, as well. I decide to try a different tack. “Forgive me if this seems too much like prying, but I overheard whispers about something called a ‘Glass Doge,’ who… or what… is that?”
I am not prepared for her reaction. Up till this moment, it’s been possible to read every emotion on Gemma’s face. Her body language has practically been shouting at me. Now, suddenly, it’s like a door has slammed as her face goes carefully blank.
“I haven’t a clue what you mean.”
I narrow my eyes and give her my best “I’m not buying it” face. “I’m interested in Venetian folklore,” you probe. “Surely as a member of one of the oldest families in Venice you’ve heard of such a tale? Or perhaps you learned something about it from the other girls at the convent.”
Her shoulders relax ever so slightly. But she still doesn’t admit to anything. “Nobody ever mentioned such a person. Are we done?”
“Almost,” I promise. “If you could travel to another world, but would have to leave everything you know behind forever, would you do it?”
Thoroughly rattled, Gemma narrows her eyes at me. “What are you saying? Are you trying to threaten me?”
“Threaten you? What are you talking about?” I can’t keep back the incredulous laugh that bubbles to my lips. “No, no, signorina. Not in the least. It’s an honest question.”
Gemma gulps, then grabs the balcony rail and stares down at the canal for a moment before she replies. “Look at this city. Look at that fishmonger woman. I’ll never get to speak to her, you realise. Look at that street. I’ll never get to walk it, to see where it leads. Look at that Turkish traveller in his gondola. He’ll see my house, but I’ll never see his. Jenelle, every day I look through the windows of this palazzo and watch another world go by, so close I can see it, hear it, smell it. Would I leave this house to be a part of that world? Even if I could never return?” She swallows again. “Yes, by all the angels in heaven. Tomorrow, if I could.”
I stare at my notes, wondering what else I should ask. “You say you are born to rule, but you also said your family would not be on the Grand Council much longer. Can you clarify that a bit for my readers?”
“Oh. I meant–if I had been born a man.” Gemma huffs a sigh. “You’re evidently a foreigner. Women don’t serve on the Grand Council of Venice.” She stops for a moment, eyeing me speculatively. “Where are you from?”
I look down at the street where she just pointed and stare thoughtfully at the fishmonger woman. Shouting at passers-by, I think that she probably feels as trapped in her life as Gemma does. Everyone is trapped, in some way, but I do not think Gemma would understand that, and my time is growing short. I pull myself out of my reverie. “Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today. My final question would be this: how do you feel about your author? Is there anything you’d like to say to her?”
Gemma’s eyes grow wide, this time in genuine surprise. “My author? Do you mean Signor God?” She must not have heard the last word in my sentence. She gives a distinctly nervous laugh. “Believe me, I think about that all the time. Holy saints shield me from having to face him any time soon.”
I smile, deciding not to correct her assumption about my question. “Well, thank you very much for talking to me, signorina.”
My badge blinks and Venice fades away.
The City Beyond the Glass is Suzannah Rowntree’s most recent release, and is now available in the Amazon Kindle Store.
When Suzannah Rowntree isn’t travelling the world to help out friends in need, she lives in a big house in rural Australia with her awesome parents and siblings, writing historical fantasy fiction informed by a covenantal Christian perspective on history.
If you like the fiction of CS Lewis, GK Chesterton, Stephen Lawhead, or ND Wilson, you’ll probably enjoy her stories too.
I don’t know about you, but I am very much looking forward to reading this book!
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