About the novel
Aurelia Rubbini, the only child of a rich merchant in fourteenth century Italy, has been raised to be a dutiful daughter, wife and mother, but she longs for something more than the restricted life intended for her. Then one day, her father brings home from a buying trip an Asian slave boy, Batu, who will reshape Aurelia’s destiny.
Aurelia and Batu are inexorably drawn to each other, but their relationship is forbidden as Aurelia is destined for an arranged marriage to further her father’s political ambitions. When Aurelia marries Lorenzo de Graziano, a nobleman with a dangerous reputation, Batu insists on going with her for her protection. But Batu’s presence arouses violent passions that Aurelia, in her innocence, can never understand.
The Back Story
The Slave began in 2002 as an assignment for the Professional, Writing and Editing course (PWE) I was undertaking, but the idea was born way back in my days at La Trobe University in the 1970s. In my second year I was attending lectures on French literature which were also being attended by a rather handsome Asian boy. Not actually enrolled in the course, he sat in regal isolation at the back of the lecture theatre. Although I was too shy to approach the lad, he played on my girlish, and necessarily romantic, imagination. I saw him as a Laotian prince, driven out of his country by the communists, attending French lectures just to be able to listen to a familiar language. At the same time my History subject was Medieval and Renaissance Italy. And somehow, as I indulged my fantasies, the Asian boy found himself stranded in Medieval Italy.
As I was writing The Slave, I kept telling myself the novel was just a learning experience, that I should never expect to get it published, that all writers had at least one unpublished manuscript in their bottom drawer. But once the book was finished I knew it was good enough to be published and so decided to give it a shot. However, I soon discovered that, just as we’d been told in PWE, getting published in Australia was virtually impossible.
Well, that wasn’t the only thing I’d learnt in PWE. I had also learnt how to self-publish, and so self-publish I did. I undertook the editing, typesetting and cover design and got it printed with the best in digital technology. I was once told by a professional publisher it was the best looking self-published book he’d ever seen. His wife who was also a published writer said she couldn’t put it down.
However, all the online marketing opportunities we have now barely existed all the way back in 2005, so I’ve decided to give this book another go in anticipation of my new book. The Slave is now an ebook, as well as being available as a POD from Lulu.
Ouch! Rosetta, must you be so rough?’ Aurelia chaffed as Rosetta tugged at a knot with an ivory comb.
‘If you stopped wriggling around so, it would not hurt as much,’ Rosetta replied, giving Aurelia a playful poke that made her squirm and yelp. ‘Sit still and let me finish. You are a young lady now so start acting like one.’
‘A young lady is never allowed any amusement,’ Aurelia sighed, closing her eyes and holding her face up to the sun.
Aurelia was sitting in the pleasant warmth of a late autumn afternoon, letting the sun dry her fine, tawny hair while her nurse tried to bring some order into her waist-length veil. At long last, she felt Rosetta drawing the comb smoothly through her hair.
‘Figlia mia,’ Rosetta crooned, ‘if only you could see how beautiful you look with your hair shining in the sun.’
Aurelia looked up into her nurse’s loving, round face, framed in its white linen wimple. ‘Cara Rosetta, you know I shall never be beautiful…except to you.’
Rosetta took Aurelia’s face between her hands. ‘Now, child, none of this talk. The man that marries you will be getting such a treasure. It seems only yesterday that I held you to my breast, and now look at you – a fine young woman who may be married soon with babes of her own.’
Aurelia felt herself blush and pulled away from her nurse’s hands. ‘Please, Rosetta, must we talk of such things again?’
Rosetta replied with her familiar knowing smile.
While Rosetta cleared up around her, Aurelia leant on the wooden railing of the gallery where they were sitting, staring out at the wall that enclosed the courtyard below and shut them off from the vibrant city outside. She could see nothing of the narrow streets over the high wall, but she could hear the talk and laughter of passersby, the shouts of the street traders selling apples and oranges, flowers and coloured ribbons, the clip clop of horses’ hooves on the cobbles, the creak of wooden cart wheels and the cries of the carters to make way. Inside the wall, a few servants moved desultorily about the courtyard, or sat, pretending to mend a rake or straw broom as they chatted idly. All the while their eyes strayed to the postern gate set into the wide, heavy wooden gate in the portal arch.
‘Rosetta, when will Papa arrive?’
Rosetta came to stand beside her. ‘Today or tomorrow, the messenger said. Perhaps he will bring you gifts. Something for your trousseau, silks from the east, maybe.’
‘Something from far, far away…would it not be wonderful to be able to travel far away to foreign lands like Papa?’ She sighed glumly. ‘Or even just beyond these walls.’
‘Now, now, child. We go out on Sundays and holy days…’
‘…to the parish church three streets away. We do not even go to the duomo above twice a year. And you will not take me to the market with you anymore.’
‘Aurelia, you know better than that,’ Rosetta chided her gently. ‘What would people think, seeing you out and about in the town?’
‘But I never go anywhere.’
‘Why, only last month we went to the village for the harvest festival…’
‘…where you and Mama kept me by your side all day. I was not even allowed to talk to my old friends.’
‘Those peasant girls are not suitable companions for a young lady in your position, you know that.’
Aurelia fell silent again, having no reply to Rosetta’s oft repeated arguments.
Rosetta sat down beside her. ‘You are restless, cara mia. I can understand that, but you will have a household of your own and plenty to occupy you soon enough.’
‘Another house with walls around it. Another husband who is never at home.’
‘It need not be that way.’
‘No, I could become a nun instead. At least I would have other women I could talk to.’
‘Is your old Rosetta no longer enough for you?’
‘Oh, Rosetta, I am sorry. You are my dearest friend…’ Aurelia cried, putting her arms around her nurse’s generous waist.
Rosetta held her to her ample bosom. ‘I understand, child, all too well…’
Suddenly, below them, the postern gate was slammed open and a servant ran into the courtyard shouting, ‘Open the gate! The master is here.’ With the help of the others, he unbarred the gate to the street and opened it to Francesco Rubbini and his party of dusty and exhausted men and horses.
Aurelia leant over the railings, straining to see through the portal arch. ‘Rosetta, it is Papa. Papa has returned,’ she cried, running around the gallery to a point above where her father was dismounting stiffly from his horse. ‘Papa, Papa! Benvenuto!’ Aurelia called down to him.
Her father looked up at her wearily, his broad, intelligent face pale and dusty. ‘Really, Aurelia. Must you appear such a harridan? Look at you.’
Aurelia felt Rosetta’s arm come around her shoulders, but she shook her off lest the tears blurring her eyes should burst forth.
Across the courtyard, Aurelia’s mother spoke up for her. ‘There is no need to be so harsh. She is just glad to see you home after so long a journey.’
Messer Rubbini looked from one to the other then turned away with a shrug to direct the unloading of the pack animals.
Costanza Rubbini approached her daughter and placed a cool, thin hand on her arm. ‘Your father is tired, Aurelia. We shall hear all his news later.’
Having handed his reins to a groom and given orders to Carlo the steward, Messer Rubbini went up to his rooms followed soon after by his wife. Unable to help with the complicated operations below, but reluctant to leave, Aurelia and Rosetta stayed and watched as one by one the horses were unburdened and their loads carried into the storerooms underneath the house.
As the tangle of horses and men was unravelled, Aurelia noticed one lonely, dirty, tousled figure squatting still amongst all the movement. As one of the men pushed past him he almost toppled over and Aurelia saw that the hands he stretched out to steady himself were tied together.
Aurelia pointed him out to her nurse. ‘Look, Rosetta. Who is that poor man? Why is he tied up like that?’
‘Perhaps he has done something that deserves punishment. Your father often complains that he cannot rely on his men on these long trips.’
‘But I do not recognise him. He has never travelled with Papa before.’
As they watched, another of the men pulled the stranger roughly to his feet. The stranger knocked the other man’s arm away with his tied wrists. The man pushed him hard in the chest against another two men who, laughing, took the stranger by the arms and pushed him back at his assailant. As the two men glared at each other, Aurelia could hear a murmur of excitement ripple through the party as they moved closer to watch the sport.
Suddenly the steward’s deep voice cut through the tension. ‘Basta! There’s work to be done.’ The group dispersed leaving the two protagonists with the steward. Carlo spoke to the assailant who left with obvious reluctance, then directed the newcomer to a bench by the wall, where he settled down, drawing his legs up close to him and watching the others warily.
Aurelia turned to Rosetta. ‘Who is he? Why do they treat him so? Please, could you ask Carlo?’
Rosetta sighed but agreed to go and talk to her husband.
The stranger sat on his bench in a patch of the waning sunlight. He leant his head back against the wall behind him, eyes closed, drinking in the sun’s failing warmth, yet his back was straight and his every muscle seemed tensed. Then his narrow, black eyes opened and measured the walls that surrounded him.
As the stranger’s eyes swept around the courtyard they came to rest on Aurelia, studying him from above. He looked at her steadily, his expression grave, unreadable. Aurelia was conscious of the contrast between them – her newly washed hair and her lush, woollen gown; his black hair, matted and dirty, and his clothes, barely more than rags – yet he was not humbled.
Rosetta’s voiced roused her. ‘Carlo says the master picked him up at auction in Venice. He is a galley slave from the east somewhere.’
Aurelia was quiet at dinner that evening. Her father was regaling them with a description of his journey, what he had seen on the way and how successful it had been. They were a poor audience, she and her mother, for her father’s adventures and his business coups, but these evenings, when he returned tired and triumphant, were the few occasions when he spoke to them at any length. He would tell them of his adventures in foreign parts, of his business acumen, of his wisdom and knowledge of the world. Aurelia would always listen, wide eyed with wonder and delight to hear such tales of the outside world, but that evening there was something hollow in her father’s vaunting.
He had come to his business dealings in Venice. A Turkish merchant ship had been captured and its cargo and contents were being auctioned. He was listing the bargains he had acquired, among them the slave. Aurelia found herself speaking up almost despite herself.
‘Is it not a sin to keep slaves, Papa?’
Her mother looked at her, askance.
Aurelia caught her breath, appalled at her own boldness.
Her father did not even turn to face her. ‘I did that boy a service. If I had not taken him he would have been sent back to the galleys.’ She could hear the anger held back by his terse lips.
Aurelia felt her voice tremble but she persisted. ‘W-why did you not set him free then, if you wished to do him a charity?’
‘Aurelia,’ her mother warned, ‘do not question your father.’
Messer Rubbini turned now to look at her. ‘Where would he go? I doubt he even knows the way back to his homeland.’
‘So why do you need to tie him up?’
Her father’s fist hit the table and Aurelia jumped. ‘I do not have to justify myself to you, young lady.’
‘Apologise to your father, child,’ her mother pleaded.
Her father glared at her, his fists still on the table.
Aurelia pushed her chair back and stood up. ‘I think I shall go to bed.’ Her voice strained with the effort to keep it steady. She saw her mother put a restraining hand on her father’s arm as she turned to go.
Aurelia’s room was still dark when Rosetta came to her. She lit the candles from the one she carried and closed the shutter against the moonlight. Aurelia was crouching on the bed, arms around her knees, her face streaky with tears.
Rosetta sat beside her and put an arm around her. ‘There, now, child. In the morning you will apologise to your father and all will be well again.’
Aurelia rested her head on Rosetta’s shoulder. ‘I think not, Rosetta. But then it has not been well, has it? Between my father and me. Not for a long time and perhaps never again’
Rosetta held her close. ‘Amore mia, your father loves you. You know that.’
Aurelia drew away. ‘Do I? Things have never been the same since my brother died. I know Paolo was the centre of his world, and he had little enough time for me. But at least, when he did see me, I was his beautiful little girl. Now I am just a useless daughter.’
‘How can you say such a thing…?’
‘What use is an only daughter to him? I cannot carry on his business or his name.’
Rosetta took both Aurelia’s hands in hers. ‘You can marry well into a good family. Be an excellent wife. Give him many fine grandsons.’
‘And if I cannot? What if I am like Mama and all my sons die as babes? What if I am barren…’
‘…like me,’ Rosetta added sadly.
Aurelia blushed. ‘I am sorry, Rosetta. I did not think.’
‘It is best not to worry about these things, figlia mia. It is all in the hands of God. All we can do is pray for His blessings…Now, let me help you undress…’
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Other readers thoughts…
"This historical novel first brought me gently to fourteenth century Italy; then drew me in; then kept me there. It is a good read and Aurelia stayed with me long afterwards." Linda Clark
"Pauline Montagna’s narrative artfully takes us back to fourteenth century Italy and provides us with a gripping period romance with a twist. A thoroughly credible and enjoyable read." Cathy Baillie
"Both my husband and I read your book during our recent trip. We both really enjoyed it…I found it hard to put down once the plot was developed. Good Work." Roe Neville
"We are often told of the parlous state of Romance as a genre in Australian fiction. This genre, maligned here, is lauded and celebrated elsewhere. And on reading Pauline Montagna’s historical romance, The Slave, one has to ask why.
Aimed fairly and squarely at a female readership, The Slave tells the story of Aurelia Rubbini, only child of a wealthy fourteenth century Italian family, who has lead a sheltered life being prepared for marriage. Batu, a slave her father brings back from the East on a trading journey, catches her eye, and the pair are drawn together. Their feelings for one another don’t abate even when Aurelia is married off as a ploy by her father to land a place on the council – a situation with catastrophic results, some expected, and some a complete surprise.
Having read the cover notes on this book, I thought the title was an obvious one, but just one chapter in, I realised that in fact Batu wasn’t the only slave in this novel. Montagna paints a vivid picture of a heavily patriarchal Italy in which women are sequestered within family homes, have no freedom, and spend their days doing needlework or being dressed by servants. Aurelia is forbidden everything that she desires; her life is not her own.
The Slave is an extremely well-put-together novel that’s both entertaining and colourful. The storyline rolls along easily, pulling readers with it, and between the action and romance scenes, depiction of daily life, rich characterisations, and clear descriptions, the book is difficult to put down. It’s certainly not a hard read, but at the same time, it draws readers in – we quickly find ourselves empathising with Aurelia as her situation moves from bad to worse.
I must admit that this was the first romance novel I’d read, and I was surprised by how compelling and involving it was, and by how much I enjoyed it. Montagna is an independent author who’s published the book herself, but the quality of this publication easily rivals those of professional publishers." Georgina Laidlaw, Australian Reader
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