Life would have been much easier if I believed in fairy tales. I could have set my shoes out on Candlemas Eve, and expected the sprites to fill them with candy. I could have dreamed that the Saints would return my poor mother to life. I could have fantasized that some handsome young prince would fall in love with me and carry me off to a life of luxury. Or perhaps I could simply have believed, as my father did, that one day the fairies would return to his workshop, and his shoes would no longer be the ugliest in all the lands.
I could not afford such hopes. I had to deal with reality. “Visconti leatherworks,” I called, wedged between the fruit-seller and the wool merchant. “Shoes fit for a noble! Only ten guilders a pair!” Surely someone would buy them at that price.
A long, rolling laugh drowned my next call. I turned to see Captain Niccolo at the nearby textiles booth, watching me as he fondled a length of crimson satin. Red was his color of choice, to match the sash that marked him captain of the guard. Even his tall boots were a bloody scarlet. Father had made them last year, before Mother died, before he had lost his skills. I still remembered how Niccolo had pinched my cheek when he came to collect his purchase, and how he’d tried to persuade Father to accept a mere ten guilders. Mother had put a stop to that straightaway, producing the original contract bearing Niccolo’s extravagant signature under the price of twenty-five guilders.
“Shoes fit for a noble?” drawled the captain. “Tsk, tsk, Fortunata, those aren’t even fit for a festival fool. Your father’s name meant something once, but you’ll soon wear out even the shred of respect it has left.”
“My father is the Master Shoemaker of Valenzia,” I said, but I pulled my apron up to cover the basket of hideous shoes I carried. I still held a particularly wretched pair in my other hand.
Niccolo sauntered forward and plucked the red shoes from my grasp. “Dear girl, do you really expect anyone to purchase these?” Some of the market-goers had paused to observe our interchange and ogle the shoes. Curse the man, but he was right. Nobody in their right mind would buy them. One stood a full hand-span taller than the other. The shorter shoe sprouted a curled toe so extravagant it collapsed under its own weight. The only thing that made the two a pair at all was their vibrant red color, accented by a virulent green that clashed louder than the doge’s trumpeters. I swallowed to clear the lump from my throat.
“Perhaps you might try the Cathedral hospice,” said Niccolo. “There are always a few blind beggars there. Even they wouldn’t pay for such horrors, but at least they might be persuaded to wear them.”
I snatched at the red shoes, but Niccolo jerked them neatly away from my fingers. “You’ve fallen faster than even I expected.” He looked me up and down, taking in the too-short skirts, the too-tight bodice, the dirty ankles. He smirked most broadly at my feet. “Though I see you’ve still got shoes fit for a noble.” I forced myself not to look down at the black and yellow boots Father had presented me proudly a few days earlier. I knew quite well I looked like I had two large bumblebees on my feet.
Captain Niccolo leaned close, his voice pitched low. “It’s a shame to see a pretty thing like you forced out onto the streets like this. It must be difficult to give up all the luxuries to which you are accustomed. I could provide all that back again, my dear, and more. I could use a pretty maid to serve me. It would not be unpleasant, and you would find me a generous benefactor in all respects.”
I met his gaze, but I knew I turned as scarlet as the cursed shoes. I forced the words out. “I think you mistake me, sir. I doubt my situation could ever be dire enough that I would accept such an offer.”
He merely laughed. “You think you have things rough now, Fortunata, but you’re only at the barest edge of poverty. When you’ve spent a winter with nothing but a single cloak, and that pretty face is sunken and pale as a skull, then you’ll wish you’d answered differently. You will never sell those shoes for more than a guilder, on my word.”
I narrowed my eyes. “On your word? And if I were to meet that challenge?” It was reckless, but Papa and I had eaten nothing but cabbage soup morning, noon, and night for the past week.
“My dear Fortunata, if you can sell those horrors I will buy a pair myself, and wear them to the doge’s ball. But you can’t be serious.”
“I’ll have the coin in my purse by the time the noon-bell rings,” I said, before I could think better of it.
His lips twitched, but he nodded. “I don’t gamble unless there’s something in it for me. Clearly you have no coin to wager. But I do seem to recall a fine golden chain the doge himself laid upon your father’s neck.”
“Father’s chain of mastery? I could never–”
“If he still deserves it, you need not fear to lose it. Unless you’d rather wager something of your own? My other offer remains open…”
I blushed again under his leering smile. “The chain it is. I swear it by the Saints.” Silently I sent the Saints an extra prayer that I was not making the biggest mistake of my life.
Niccolo tossed the shoes at me. “Be sure to fetch that gold chain before the noon bell rings. I’m meeting Lady Giaconda for lunch and I plan to wear it. You may find me in Saint Sofia’s square.”
I ignored his parting laughter as I scanned the crowds for a target. If the Saints were kind, I would find just the sort of person I was looking for. I passed over the old woman hustling along a flock of children, and the hard-faced man inspecting turnips as if they were gold coins. The quarter-bell rang, sending my heart thumping. Saints be with me, I could not lose my father’s chain! Perhaps I should have taken the captain’s offer.
No, I told myself. I could do this. I had been wheedling sweets out of Zia Rosa since I was a little girl, and I had once persuaded miserly Lord Ferdinando to purchase an extra pair of pointed dance shoes when all he wanted was hunting boots. I just needed the right person.
I found him leaning against the side of the pie-seller’s stall, one arm wrapped around the post as if it were a woman. He stared mournfully across the street at a gaggle of maids clustered around the ribbon wheels at the booth beside me. I edged closer to the girls, pretending to straighten out my apron as I listened. After a spate of gossip about the doge’s unmarried brother and what color ribbons he might fancy, I had my reward.
“Poor Giacamo the tailor’s boy has been staring at us since the quarter bell rang,” said one of them. “A shame he’s so skinny.”
“Better skinny than covered in moles like that smith you favor,” said another. “And once he’s tailor, he’ll have the finest clothes of any tradesman in all Valenzia.”
“Are you sweet on him then, Bettina?” said a third girl, with a giggle. “Shall we choose your wedding ribbons?”
Bettina flushed, and that was all I needed to see. Taking a firmer grip on the red shoes, I marched towards the lad Giacamo. As soon as I was within earshot, I took up my cry. “Magic shoes! Find fame and fortune! Bind your true-love’s heart! Only ten guilders!”
The tailor’s boy twisted around, his eyes wide. He really wasn’t a bad-looking fellow, with that crop of dark curls and soft brown eyes. I sidled closer. “You, sir, must have a sweetheart.”
“I– I– No, I don’t have a sweetheart. That is, there’s someone, but she doesn’t know–”
“Then I have the shoes for you. With these upon your feet, she will have eyes for no other. Come now, try them on.” I pushed him back onto an upturned bucket and had his tattered sandals off a moment later. “See, they are red, like the roses of true love, like the blood of your own passionate heart.”
“I don’t–” he began, but I had already buckled on the taller shoe. I took up the other, trying surreptitiously to straighten the floppy curling toe. I told myself there was at least a grain of truth in what I was saying. Bettina certainly would have eyes for no other if the lad approached her with these scarlet monstrosities on his feet.
“Are they truly magical?” the boy asked, twitching one foot. The curled toe waggled and toppled over again.
“Of course. Have you never heard of Master Visconti? My father is the master shoemaker of all Valenzia, and his own father crafted boots for queens and kings in distant lands.” That was also true, for the most part. I never knew my grandfather, but Papa had told me tales of how he traveled the lands plying his trade, and how he had once made a pair of slippers for my grandmother that so impressed the doge of Valenzia that he purchased them himself, right off her feet, to give as a gift to a mighty foreign queen!
“The shoes are fated to be yours,” I said, forcing my lips into a smile. “They call out to you, can you not hear them? Giacamo, they cry, we are for Giacamo, the Tailor.”
“I’m not a tailor,” he protested.
“Not yet, but you will be. With the help of these magic shoes.” I tightened the last buckle. “There now. Can you not see how special these are? Truly they are unlike any others.”
And thank goodness for that, I told myself. I watched the boy closely. He was weakening. He glanced over to the ribbon booth again. “I haven’t much coin.”
“The boots are ten guilders,” I said. “But for you, for the sake of true love, I will ask only eight.”
He gulped. “I have only five.”
I had done it. A flush of victory warmed my cheeks, until I saw how tightly he clenched the limp purse that hung from his belt. I knew all-too-well the pain of giving up even a single coin, when one had so little. “Four, then, and use the other to buy your maid a red rose.”
As I made my way towards Saint Sofia’s square, the four coins jingled merrily in my pocket. Soon they would be joined by twenty more. I relished the thought of Captain Niccolo’s face. And Giacamo the tailor’s boy had not suffered too greatly. Bettina had been smiling prettily when I last saw her, standing with the boy, a blossom in her hands. Though I had to admit the girl spent a good amount of time staring at her paramour’s bright red feet.
I found the captain beside the fountain of Saint Sofia, offering Lady Giaconda morsels of candied fruits as she simpered and sparkled brighter than the golden Saint’s statue in the sun. His face fell as he caught sight of me.
“Captain Niccolo,” I said, as the noon bell began to chime. I dipped a brief curtsy to Lady Giaconda, who pulled back her skirts and gave a stiff nod. “Your pardon, Lady, but the captain and I have a wager to conclude.” I jingled my pocket. “Would you like to try on your new boots, sir?”
His lip curled. “It’s not possible. No one could have–”
“By the Saints,” said Lady Giaconda. “Do you see those horrible shoes that boy has on?”
I spied Giacamo swaggering along the other side of the square, Bettina on his arm. She didn’t even seem to be looking at his shoes anymore.
I turned back to the captain. “You were saying, sir?”
He did not speak. I pulled a pair of boots from my basket and held them out. I could not help but grin. I had chosen for the captain a pair so hideous they had been buried at the bottom of my basket. They looked like giant ruffled sausages, pinker than Lady Giaconda’s cheeks, and bore grass-green tassels. In the bright sunlight, they almost glowed. Father had truly outdone himself. Beside them, my bumblebees looked almost pretty.
“Saint Sofia preserve me,” gasped Lady Giaconda.
“You’ll regret this,” Niccolo growled, so low only I could hear it. He snatched the boots from my hand and turned away.
“Excuse me, Captain, but you’ve forgotten the payment. That will be twenty guilders for the boots. I hope they serve you well at the doge’s ball.”
“Niccolo, you can’t possibly intend to wear those things to the ball,” said Lady Giaconda.
“But the captain is a man of his word, Lady,” I said. “Don’t fear. I’m certain you can find a gown to match. They are a lovely shade of pink, don’t you think?”
Niccolo held a handful of gold coins as if he planned to throw them at me. I did not care if I had to pick them from the cobblestones. It was worth it to see him set down, though the fierce look in his eye alarmed me. I wondered if I had pushed things too far.
He shoved the coins at me and I tucked them away. “Good day, my lady, sir.”
“Not yet.” The captain seized my wrist. “You have your gold, but I want something in return. If I’m to wear these monstrosities, I’ll do it with a gold chain round my neck.”
“I wouldn’t give you Father’s chain if it meant starving in rags. Now let me be or–”
“You’ll call for the Guard?” He quirked a black brow at me.
He knew that I knew half the soldiers in Valenzia were in his company, under his command. Soldiers for hire, currently working for the doge, but as like to turn against him if the captain had a better offer. I raised my chin and glared at him with as much fury and as little fear as I could manage. Then I brought my foot down hard on his instep, and the sneering laugh turned into a yelp of pain. My boots might be ugly, but they had nice, hard heels. I twisted free from the captain and darted away. I didn’t look back, even when he called out after me, “Stupid girl! You’ll regret that. There’s nowhere in this town you can hide!”
I could feel the fierce grin on my own lips. It served him right, the slimy scoundrel. I should have known he wouldn’t hold to his word. Of course, he did have the strongest force of soldiers in all Valenzia. It had probably not been the wisest thing to do. I was still shaking from the exchange when I reached our hovel of a house. But my mind was burning with a new plan. The captain’s threat had given me the idea.
Father and I would leave Valenzia. There was nothing left for us here but Father’s name, which had already become a joke. And though I had bested Captain Niccolo this time, I could not count on doing so again. We must seek our fortune elsewhere.
To celebrate, Father and I feasted on a roast chicken with olives that night, with an almond cake from Zia Rosa the sweet-seller for dessert. The next day, with the proceeds from the sausage-shoes, I purchased a sturdy cart and a placid gray donkey. We packed Father’s supplies neatly into the cart, along with an iron pot, several candles, and what clothes we had left.
“Where will we go?” Father asked. He stared back into our empty house. “What if the fairies come back and can’t find us?”
I smothered a groan. Before he had lost his gifts, my father had claimed the fairies cleaned his workshop, polishing his tools and sprinkling them with pixie dust so he might craft his marvelous shoes. I knew better. I had caught my mother at it, early one morning. When the fever took her from us, I thought at first it was only grief that had driven away my father’s gifts. Then one morning I had found him staring at the row of dusty awls and needles and knives. I offered to clean them myself, but it made no difference: he was convinced the magic was gone.
We were leaving behind the only home I’d ever known, where I had once dreamed a golden life full of promise: dancing at the doge’s ball, petal-strewn walks in the gardens, even giggling around the ribbon-booth over some lad who was making eyes at me. In this city every corner held some memory of my mother: her favorite bakery, sweet with orange rind and cardamom, the river where she’d taken me as a little girl to sail my toy boat, the bustling markets she’d walked through with such grace and style that people thought her a titled lady.
Now I was leaving all that behind, and all my father could think of was whether the fairies would return? I missed her too, so much that I couldn’t even look at our house without blinking back tears, remembering how she’d always waved to me from the kitchen window when I went off running errands. But I was moving on, I was doing the best that I could to keep our life together. Why couldn’t he?
“We’ll travel to other cities, Papa,” I told him, burying my bitterness under a false smile. “Like you did when you were younger, and like grandpapa did. Surely we’ll find plenty of work.”
I climbed into the front of the wagon and took the reins. Father stood for a long moment beside the box, looking up at me through his owlish spectacles. “You’re so like your mother, Nata,” he said at last. “She always knew what to do. I know it’s been hard for you this past year. But I promise you, by all the Saints, I’ll do everything I can to make you happy. I know I haven’t been much of a father.”
My throat was tight, seeing him there in his shabby clothing. It was loose on him now; we’d had too many meals of cabbage soup. The silver in his hair caught the morning light, making me realize how old he’d become in the past year. I took his hand and helped him up into the wagon beside me. “You’ve been working so hard, Papa, I know. But this is our new beginning.”
“The fairies will come back, one day,” Father murmured. “Such shoes I will make, with their magic.”
“We don’t need them. We’ll do fine on our own. You’ll see.” I turned my head, brushing the tears from my eyes before he could see them. Then I jiggled the reins and off we went, out through the gates of Valenzia and into the world beyond.