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Exclusive Excerpt from "The Secret Language of Women"


Chapter 2




THE EXTENSIVE HONOR GUARD HAD been recalled from the Palace—Giacomo Scimenti returning to the Italian legation with Captain Morante, Lieutenant Rinaldi, and the rest of the sailors assigned to the Peking security detail. Chief steward and cook aboard the gunship Leopardo, Giacomo preferred life at sea and had been sorry to be ordered to Peking. At least he could still cook. When the deputy ambassador heard he had a real Sicilian cook on the premises, he’d thrown out the Chinese coolie who usually prepared the Legation’s meals and put Giacomo in charge of the kitchen. Meanwhile the Leopardo remained docked in Tientsin, some one hundred and sixty kilometers away.

At dawn, the morning after he’d met the girl in the garden, Giacomo stood in the kitchen preparing hot tea. He brought the tea and sweet biscuits to the deputy ambassador’s office where the deputy was deep in conversation with Rinaldi and the captain. Giacomo put down the tray and stepped into the garden in the inner courtyard of the legation. In the garden, the shadow play of dawn did acrobatic stunts from trees to plants as light filtered down; even the weightless, keen air tumbled among the bushes till they shook and then fell still. He paced the garden two times, back and forth, and then returned for the tray, but the men hadn’t even touched it yet. He shook his head and left the room.

Breakfast still needed to be prepared. He had already baked a crostata and a coffee cake, but Giacomo was in no hurry. He walked outside the legation and slipped past the wall to the street where the city was just beginning to stir. At the nearby market, merchants were setting up their stalls. Soon they would be squawking their wares to the music of pigs oinking and donkeys braying. Giacomo didn’t understand a word of Chinese, but he loved to listen to the bargaining for ducks, fruits, and vegetables. Gestures and expressions were the same in any language, and watching the interplay of merchants and customers, he sometimes felt as if he were back in the market in his hometown of Carini in Sicily watching the hawkers sell their wares, and women, like his mother, bargain for zucchini and eggplant.

For now, peace hung in the air. Across the street Chinese houses huddled in the dim light beside the post office that served the foreign legations. The major powers of the world had assembled here—Russian, German, British, Japanese, American, and French, along with his own Italians—as a part of China’s Relief Expedition Force, a multinational endeavor to rescue civilians from the violence of the rebellion. Movement drew his eyes to Ha Ta Men Street where lit lanterns were swinging just before daylight. It made a poignant sight, reminding him of a ship’s storm lamp swaying with a sweep of rolling sea. How he missed the sea.

What would it be like to sail free of orders and visit the inlets, bays, and gulfs? At Tientsin, skinny fishermen with cone-shaped straw hats and long pigtails mended nets on the docks while cook fires burned on flimsy crafts afloat in the port. Amazing how the Chinese could eat at any time of the day—they loved vegetables as much as Sicilians. He remembered a few weeks ago he had hustled to the side of the ponte di commando, the vessel’s bridge house to look out at men onshore engaged in an elaborate ritual of calisthenics. Word was they were Boxers, rebelling peasants stirring up trouble. They were strong and physically in good shape. He made a decision to exercise more. He had been in a hurry to return to the galley, so he slid down the metal rails of the steep staircase until he came to what he thought of as his deck. He sighed and headed back into the legation. The men would want their breakfast. It was time to get to work and prepare a fresh macedonia of fruits.

At the legation late last night, there had been quite a commotion as an Italian state dignitary had been surreptitiously brought in and tended to by a Swiss doctor and a Eurasian girl, acting as his nurse. At least, according to his best buddy Bulldog, that was the scuttlebutt. Giacomo hoped it was the man and the girl he’d seen at the Palace, which meant that the girl was most probably his daughter, not his concubine. Giacomo shook his head, thinking of the liberty he’d taken with her, and yet he’d do it again. He’d chance anything for the feel of her lips, her scent.

He was enthralled with China. He loved the beer, the food, and above all, the women. When Giacomo wasn’t drinking, playing cards, or carousing with his shipmates, he was fighting, not Chinese, but Frenchmen. He had a knack for getting drawn into brawls, his or anyone else’s. It made no difference at all who was right or wrong. If one of his shipmates was involved, Giacomo stepped up to help. Any member of the French Navy in clubbing distance would be attacked mercilessly, and Giacomo and his comrades expected no quarter from the French. He supposed his hatred had something to do with the Norman’s dominion of his native Sicily for centuries. In the past year, he and his compatriots had beaten and battered more Frenchmen than Chinese. He’d had his share of whoring, too, mostly women in brothels, faceless girls that dissolved one into another. But the girl in the garden was different. He’d told her not to forget him—but she was the one he couldn’t shake from his mind. He stood cutting up fresh fruit when Bulldog appeared at the kitchen door.

“What’s wrong, Scimenti?” He slapped Giacomo affectionately on the head. “You’re mooning around like a man in love.”

“Forget it, Bulldog.” Giacomo gave him a friendly shove back. “You know me better than that.”

Seaman Shona Rotari, a short, stocky, half-African Neapolitan, called himself a mongrel mix, his father Italian, his mother Libyan. The nickname suited him. Bulldog had a fierce face but a gentle nature, and to Giacomo the name meant faithful friend.

Giacomo said, “Never heard the name Shona before. What’s it mean?”

“Arabic for ‘beloved.’”

“And you’re telling me I’m a man in love. What was your father thinking? No wonder you want to be called Bulldog,” Giacomo said, suppressing a laugh.

“Shut the door on it, mate. Trap sealed, or you’ll find out how rabid a bite this dog has.”

LATER THAT MORNING, JUST AS Giacomo finished the pasta sauce with pancetta, mushrooms, onions, and peas for lunch, Lieutenant Rinaldi stopped by the kitchen and said, “Scimenti, get up to the sick man’s room—you’ll find him in his chambers upstairs. They need you to prepare some special concoction for him.”

“Who is it, Lieutenant, sir? The Italian ambassador who was sick at the Palace last night?”

Rinaldi nodded. “Get to it, Scimenti.”

“Should I bring Messman Pillari, sir?”

“No. You go. On the double.”

As Giacomo entered the ambassador’s chambers, he heard the doctor who had been at the Summer Palace the night before, giving orders. Giacomo’s heart wanted to bound out of his chest, knowing the girl was there too.

The doctor turned to the medic, Chief Petty Officer Donatello Lambrusco, on duty. “Strip the patient and burn his clothing—this should have already been done last night. Scrub him down with this solution.” He scribbled a recipe on a piece of paper. “Before applying this, shave him completely.”

The sick man was delirious and didn’t put up a fuss.

The medic said, “Shave him everywhere?”

“That’s what I said.” The doctor opened his hand and waved it over the patient. “Everywhere.”

Giacomo said, “Excuse me, but the Lieutenant said you needed something from the kitchen, sir.” He extended his hand to the doctor.

“I’m Chief Steward and Cook Giacomo Scimenti, sir.” He leaned a little to the left and saw the pretty girl from the garden standing behind the doctor. She resembled her father. A vision in a pale-green dress. She was diminutive in stature—a doll whose cheeks seemed splashed by milk and honey, her head crowned with raven hair. Her eyes slanted slightly and her nose, too perfect, was a chiseled piece of artwork. She had high cheekbones and long, graceful fingers. But her eyes. With a slight intake of breath, he saw they were green. He hadn’t noticed that in the garden. He thought about the women he’d been with here in China—temporary elixirs for sexual relief. It was all he thought he wanted until a fleeting kiss in a garden from this girl.

The doctor handed Giacomo the paper with the recipe. “Here. Mix everything together. Show my daughter to the kitchen so she can bring it to me.”

Giacomo looked at the paper. The solution was equal parts of olive oil, kerosene, and warmed vinegar. “Yes, sir. Will she be able to carry three liters, sir?”

“Lian is strong enough, but the steps are steep. Give her the mixture one liter at a time.”

“I’ll bring the whole batch up to you, sir,” Giacomo said, thinking, Now I have a name to go with her exotic face.

“Fine. The deputy ambassador is arranging a room for us. We’ll take tea after we finish here. It’s been a long night and we haven’t slept.”

“Yes, sir, I’ll have the messman bring it around.” He could have kicked himself for that. He didn’t want to lose any opportunity of seeing her again. “In fact, I’ll bring it myself.”

Giacomo saw the faint glimmer of a smile on the girl’s face as she stepped from behind her father to follow him to the kitchen. As they walked down the stairs, all Giacomo could think was: che fortuna! Luck’s with me, and Bulldog won’t believe this. When they reached the bottom of the steep stairwell, Giacomo said, “In truth, I never thought I’d see you again. I must apologize for—”

She turned to face him squarely and without hesitation said, “I knew we’d meet again.”

He was taken aback by her directness. He’d never been around a girl like her before; the women he usually chased were coy and dissembling. As they hurried along the corridor to the kitchen, he felt flustered. While he readied the liquid, he glimpsed her from time to time, but could think of nothing to say. When had a woman made him into such a fool?

“We will also need huangqin,” Lian said.

Giacomo asked for a translation, and she said, “Chinese skullcap. The root of a mint-like plant effective against many bacteria. The ambassador has welts and red blotches on his skin. The huangqin will inhibit growth. He’s to drink it as a tea, but also we must pat some on the affected lesions. Can you procure some?”

Giacomo nodded. “You know so much. I’m impressed.”

She blushed. “I am still in training, but one day I hope to be a healer like my father.”

“It seems to me you already are.”

When the pot was ready, Lian reached for it.

“I’ll carry it. Too heavy, and I know the way, Lian,” he said, thrilled to speak her name. He was already thinking of ways to sequester her for a long conversation, to learn more.