It was another cloudy day in Barolo and the Lord Mayor was on edge. His servants knew better than to disturb him now. But still, this was news he had been waiting to hear. The unlucky servant picked for the duty passed a hand over his brow nervously. Francesco Bonaventura's temper was like a fiend's when he chose to show it. He would not be pleased with what he would hear, that much the servant knew. Better to feign ignorance and let the midwife tell him fully.
A cough outside the chamber door. "My Lord?"
"What?" Bonaventura's voice was flat and there was the ruffling of papers.
"My Lord…th-the Lady Iolanda…she has…has given birth."
There was the sound of a chair being pushed back and the servant could hear the heavy footsteps of his Lord striding towards him. "Have you seen it? Have I a son at last? Tell me, boy…tell me now!"
The servant shrank back despite himself. "I-I didn't see! They wouldn't let me in the room!" His throat felt constricted with the lies. "It…sounded healthy, my Lord…."
The Lord Mayor glared at him once, then made his way down the corridor towards his wife's chambers. The maids who heard him coming soon made themselves scarce. And at the open door the midwife could not meet his gaze while laying in her bed the Lady Iolanda's expression was cold…
…but something glinted in her eyes as well. But Bonaventura took no note of that. The fear exhibited by the midwife as she glanced over to the crib made it plain to him what was to be expected.
"No son." A statement, not a question.
"No, my Lord…not a son." The midwife cast her eyes downwards.
"Does she have the Gift as well at least?" His icy gaze finally fell upon his wife.
Bonaventura made a noise of disgust as he went over to the crib. A baby girl looked up at him, brown eyes shining brightly. "But nothing. You should have killed it and not wasted my time then, Iolanda." A hand reached out towards the child's throat and obliviously she cooed.
"Husband, stop!" Despite the effort of labor, Iolanda's voice was strong and determined.
"Why?" the Lord Mayor hissed. "Why should I not take this useless sack of flesh and have it drowned in the river?"
"Because you're a fool if you do!" Iolanda said simply. "You don't think I feel the shame of carrying that and not having a son? I do and damn what the Prophets think." The Lady's eyes narrowed and now Bonaventura could see the glimmer in them. "But believe me when I say she can be of more use to us alive. I have seen the Threads. Power and wealth and influence through her…and to us."
That caught Francesco's interest. His hand paused over the crib. "You speak truth, woman?"
"That I do. Else I would see no other reason why to give her another moment of breath." There was a hint of venom in his wife's voice and Francesco smiled thinly in spite of himself.
"Very well then. We shall see how this all plays out." He gave his wife a curt nod and then left the room.
The Lady Iolanda smiled smugly. Fate had given her something at least for her troubles. She had spoke truth after all…so what if the child's skein was tangled in the future? No need to tell her husband that. When she was older, perhaps it would read more clearly.
The girl began to cry.
"Take it out and feed it. I don't want to see it again tonight." She glared at the midwife.
Knowing better, the midwife said nothing and only took the baby into her arms. A sad silent prayer was on her lips for the misfortune of the girl to be born to such a family…
…and crouched at the top of the stairs the now-elder sister watched impassively as her mother's servant took the babe to the kitchen, her face all too serious for such a tender age. Her fingers twitched but once, then stopped.
Father had agreed that the failure wouldn't be killed. So far anyway.
But there were always other things she could do.
If the midwife had seen Amalia from her perch on top of the stairs, eyes as cold as the sea, perhaps she would have added a few extra prayers for the newborn's sake.
"I had the dream again, Father Fiore…."
Pushing aside the heavy Book of the Prophets for the time being, the priest turned towards the girl. Valentina Chiara Bonaventura looked up at him expectantly and, though she did her best to hide her fear, Father Fiore couldn't help but notice how her eyes darted nervously. It was no secret that the Lord Mayor disapproved of the time his youngest child spent in the small chapel even though the priest had assured him that he wouldn't let the girl look at any of the books (though it vexed him to make such a promise).
Still, young Valentina had a deep need for spiritual comfort, something that the rest of the Bonaventuras were lacking, Father Fiore noted. And if one glimmer of hope could be salvaged from that family he would do his best to listen. Eight years old and she wanted to do what was right.
"The man and the serpent?"
Valentina just nodded. The dream had been troubling her now for some time, slumbering at the back of her head like a dormant volcano. Always she had been at the edge of crying out, her bedclothes soaked in sweat. And the dark terror that gnawed at her as she tried to force herself to go back to sleep.
"It is as I told you, my child. Legion has many tricks and where temptation cannot work, there is always fear. Have a brave heart and trust in Theus. He is always there to guide you."
"I know, Father…it's just-" Valentina chewed her lip. "I'm scared sometimes. I fear I'm not strong enough. And the dream feels so real!" She shivered as she pushed a strand of black hair out of her face. "My sister said it is because I'm wicked…."
"Hush," Father Fiore reached out to hug the girl. "Amalia knows nothing of people's true characters." Only her own damned reflection, he added silently.
"Bu-but she sees things…people's hearts and minds! If the Threads say I am evil-"
"-then they lie." The priest said firmly. "Or she does." The gift (curse, thought Fiore) of Sorte had always been strong in the Bonaventura family, though for all their talents the Lord Mayor was still only just puttering around the minor river port town of Barolo and nothing any grander. Again, Fiore thanked Theus that Valentina was free of the sorcerous blood, no matter what her family thought of the issue. Still, it broke his heart that the girl was treated no better than a mere servant in her own house and despite his entreaties Lord Bonaventura refused to consider letting Valentina take vows.
Valentina looked away, not entirely convinced.
"You have a good heart, Valentina. No matter what your family tells you," Father Fiore said kindly. "And Theus knows it too. Just believe in yourself."
She nodded slightly. "I should go…I've taken too much of your time." They both knew that that wasn't the real reason.
"You are always welcome here, child. Remember that."
The girl nodded again and stepped towards the altar. She lit a candle and knelt down to pray. First she prayed for the family of one of the stable hands whose son had died in a riding accident. Then she prayed for her family. Lastly, she prayed for herself.
I must be wicked, else my parents would not send me to the Serpent. Else my sister would not help it in punishing me.Valentina shivered again, remembering the awful things it whispered…desires and deaths.
And remembering the word that she had always stopped herself from crying out was "Yes".
"They'll sell you, you know." A pause as Amalia Nicoletta Bonaventura plopped a date into her mouth. "If the money's right." She leered at her sister. "On your back all day and night where dried up old wretches can do whatever they like to you."
"They wouldn't!" Valentina's eyes were wide in shock. Amalia was only four years older than her but she seemed a lifetime more experienced in the ways of the world. "The courtesan schools aren't supposed to be like that!"
Amalia chuckled darkly. "You think Mother and Father would let a mouse like you go to one of the schools? They'd get more money if they sold you to the Crescents. I hear they pay a high price for Vodacce virgins…."
Valentina blanched, but Amalia just continued. "The Crescents pierce their slaves' nipples, you know. And they use hot pokers to make a girl's privates be wider."
"St-stop it…you're just making that up!"
Amalia grinned evilly, her teeth flecked with the remnants of dates. "Some of the Emirs have specially trained dogs. If a girl displeases them they tie her up, then they turn the dogs loose and with a certain whistle the dogs will pounce and ra-"
Valentina shrieked. Amalia only laughed.
But both froze when they heard their father's heavy footsteps approaching the room. "What is the meaning of this disturbance?" Francesco snarled, though he knew full well how Amalia liked to torment her sister.
"Father, please don't sell me!" Valentina wailed. "Not to the Crescents! I'll do anything…I'll be good!"
"Cease your blubbering, girl," he growled. "What we determine is not for you to question."
Amalia could barely hide her sneer at her sister's reply.
"Not another word!" The girls could see the fury in their father's eyes, but he simply said, "Amalia, to your room."
"But she-!" Her father's cold eyes drove Valentina to silence. The Fate Witch merely curtseyed and left the room, the sneer never leaving her face.
The Lord Mayor beat his youngest daughter three times. Once for disturbing him. Once for daring to argue with him. And finally once for giving her sister a reason to talk about improper things. The servants were forbidden to help Valentina in any way, even to get her to her room.
Later that day, Francesco approached his wife. "Amalia started with the Crescent talk again."
Iolanda tisked and shook her head.
His eyes narrowed. "It brings up a valid point, though. Valentina's twelve. She's of the age. Theus knows we'll never marry her. No magic. You said the Threads would give us fortune and power for her! Do they tell us to sell her to one of the courtesan schools? Is that it!"
The Lady closed her eyes and gathered the Threads in her mind…calling forth the Tapestry of Life. Nothing led to the courtesan schools, but she could feel the nearness of the Coins strand. A year, maybe two…
…but the tangle was still there as well.
What does that mean?
"Two years at most, husband," Iolanda frowned. "In that time, Valentina will finally be of use to us…."
They lead you down the darkened corridor…Mother, Father…. The air is thick with smoke and incense. The humidity makes the green silk dress cling all the more tightly to you.
(I don't belong here!)
The words remain unspoken, but they answer regardless: You do, you do. Your purpose, your fate…it ends and begins here….
The corridor opens up into a large chamber. You think there is a dome above you. Tired light feebly shines through the stained glass though you cannot recognize what scenes are being played out. The Drachen devours Saint Gregor. The Sirens claim Rose as one of their own. And Andare's body lies broken and torn. Amalia awaits at the foot of the altar. You always though she looked like a turd-
(Forgive me, I'm sorry!)
-all dumpy in her black dress, her stringy brown hair and heavy veil. But now she looks like Atropos Incarnate. She pulls tightly at the black and red Threads in her hands and you are now on your knees.
Mother and Father drag you to the altar…drag you to where she waits. The Threads twist again and you are bound to it. They are pleased. They smile and their teeth are bright. Amalia steps away. They all step away. You know what comes next…who comes next…
It is his eyes you notice first. Grey and green, he reflects away the light with them. He is quite handsome…all clean-shaven and young, but the others look away. You wish you could too but his gaze holds you tight. His teeth are white and sharp. His pale white hair moves as if there is a breeze but there is no wind here. He speaks one word.
Amalia tugs. You nod despite yourself. Even here you feel the fear from your sister, she who fears nothing.
He grins the predator's grin as he steps closer. The scent of decay fills the room. You want to scream but the Threads choke tightly around your throat.
"Now and forever, you have always been Mine…" The shadow of his nearness falls upon you and you see the Threads…no, just your Threads slowly draw towards him. You try to pull free, but again Amalia pulls, the cry of pain lodged deep in your throat.
He laughs as he begins to tear the clothes from himself, pulling away skin and fabric. The gold-green scales soon come to surface, the talons rendering away all traces of humanity, save his face… his terrible, beautiful face. His face stays the same. That makes it worse.
He calls your name softly as he traces a claw down your cheek. The Threads prevent you from looking away. His claws run down your body, the barest of pinpricks against your flesh, but the dress ripped away like cobwebs in the wind. His hand is rough against your thigh, the heat so close to your maidenhood.
You can feel your cheeks become crimson with the shame, but Amalia moves you as if a puppeteer would and you feel your legs part. And you cannot shut your eyes. His hand moves slightly higher up your thigh. His other hand plays against your breast.
But the word remains frozen in your mouth. You feel his warm breath tickle against your ear as he whispers, "You have no wish…no desire for me to, yes?"
You feel the heat wash over you as you whimper in fear…and in something else…
"Then all you have to do is leave."
But your body does not…will not move. You feel a tear begin to well in your eye. He catches it with his tongue and takes it into his mouth and smiles.
"You are Mine. You have always known this…"
The rubbing against your thigh quickens.
"…and you know what I ask of you…"
To make more Serpents. And Theah will drown in Their blood and venom.
"…everything you have endured has been for Me…the pain and the fear, it all ends now…"
A moan escapes you as he now strokes your maidenhood. Mother and Father crumble to dust. Triumph…revenge…these feelings bite at your heart and you have no wish to stop them.
"…yield to Me and the world will be yours…"
Out of the corner of your eye you see Amalia no longer moves, no longer breathes, the Threads lay now tangled at her feet. You are free.
It matters no longer. You rise from the altar and open yourself to accept His poisoned sacrament-
Valentina awoke with a start, her hands clutched against herself. Again, the nightmare. It had been striking at her more frequently in these past few weeks.
"Theus protect me, why must I be tormented like this?" Her voice was barely a whisper. "Why?"
The Lord Mayor looked out his window and snorted. Rain would be coming soon and unfortunately some of the levees still hadn't been finished.
Damn the Masons' Guild! But money was hard to come by these days. So few ships stopped in Barolo. And crops had been poor in his region this year. Not to mention the sporadic bandit raids. Out of work Eisen mercenaries or possibly deserters from the Montaigne army. Bonaventura didn't know. Possibly both, given his luck.
He heard the knock outside his door. "Come in."
The servant who entered the room seemed more nervous than usual. "My Lord…an envoy from the Explorers has sent a request asking permission to investigate a area south of the marshes outside of town."
Francesco didn't even turn to look at him. "Have they offered to pay?"
"Yes, my Lord." He rattled off the number, but there was no visible reaction from the Mayor. After a few seconds, the Mayor finally turned towards him.
"I suppose it will have to do," he tried to sound bored. "Tell them that I give them my permission, but see to it that somebody is keeping an eye on them just in case."
"Of course, my Lord."
But the servant hesitated to move. Bonaventura arched an eyebrow, slightly annoyed. "What are you lolling about for?"
"My-my Lord, there is one other thing…" The servant carefully handed Francesco the letter he had been holding. "I did not open it…."
The Lord Mayor recognized the seal immediately, the seal belonging to Prince Mondavi.
Now it was the Mayor's turn to hesitate as he held the letter in his hands. Correspondence from the Prince could mean anything. A denial for more funds, for instance. Or, more likely, an announcement dismissing him from his post as Lord Mayor. Tentative he broke the seal and began to read.
God's blood! Francesco's eyes widened in shock.
And then slowly, he grinned.
The look of shock on Amalia's face was priceless.
"But I don't WANT to get married! Not to some doddering old fool!"
"You will NOT raise your voice at me, Amalia!" Bonaventura's face was stern. "And you will not argue with me either!"
Unseen at the top of the stairs, fourteen-year-old Valentina could hear her sister and her parents. You would have struck her by now if it had been me saying such things… She sighed and bit her lip. For all his anger, she knew their father feared her sister's magic. It looked like it even might surpass their mother's one day.
"Amalia, bella," Iolanda cooed. "The Prince does not hire fools to serve him-"
"He has if Father thinks I'll agree to this charade!"
"Amalia!" Iolanda's voice was like ice. "You will listen to me. The man who has proposed is not some merchant plying favors here. He is a Hand to Mondavi himself! Fools do not survive long in his position. You do understand what that means."
One of the Lord's Hands. Answerable to only to his Prince, though his duties could be quite far reaching.
"And he is not so old," added Francesco. "Only five and twenty. And what I have heard about Alessandro Rinaldi has been quite favorable…."
Amalia pondered this. "Perhaps I will agree to see him…since he is on his way after all." She chuckled. "Though I would like to get away from this mud hole. I hear Chiarisa's quite lovely…."
The voices downstairs faded to idle chatter. For all intents and purposes it sounded like Amalia had finally given in to the proposal. Valentina felt a sudden sense of relief. With her sister gone, perhaps there would be some peace in the house.
A tiny smile crept on her face. Maybe now Father Fiore could convince her parents to let her enter the convent.
It is said that a little over two hundred and fifty years ago a terrible thunderstorm struck parts of northern Vodacce. Some descriptions compared it to the wrath of Theus Himself, such were the howling winds and torrential rains that pelted upon the land. Only the very foolish or the very desperate were driven to go out on that night.
On that night a farmhouse received a visitor, a lady garbed in the black veil and dress of the Fate Witches (though on that night her clothes were torn and wet with rain and blood). It was obvious that she was in great pain and was bleeding heavily, though for the life of the simple farmer he could not fathom from where. She clung frantically to the bundle she carried.
"Elisabetta…Catarina…," she gasped. "Look after them…look after them and keep them safe…and they will bring great fortune upon your family...and renew mine…."
Then she unwrapped and gave the bundle to the farmer, revealing twin girls, each with grey-green eyes. They did not cry out as they looked upon their mother's dying form, nor as she gave them each one final bloodstained kiss.
Heeding the strega's wishes, they looked after the girls and slowly their fortunes did indeed grow. The twins were each married and produced many children. It is said that with the twins' children, steel was infused into their kin's backbones. What were once simple farmers became now men of sword and wit, women of beauty and cunning and the lords took notice and sought to include them in their circles. But still, some whispered, there were those who believed that steel was infused into their hearts as well, cold and cruel and unfeeling. Those that bore the grey-green eyes they especially avoided…and dark whispers always came of just who those twins really were.
Very few in the Vodacce nobility know this story. So too, do very few Rinaldis. However, there will always be one or two interested in learning their own family heritage.
It was raining again when the carriage of the Lord's Hand came to the Bonaventura manor. Amalia had asked- make that "threatened"-Valentina to stay out of sight.
"We are impressing the Prince's man here!" she had hissed. "What will he think of us if he sees a lowly little worm like you crawling about?"
Valentina, of course, said nothing. She had merely helped her sister tie up her hair.
Please do not run screaming when you see her. Please love her and take her out of this house.Valentina remembered hearing a story about how a shrewish woman came to love an equally stubborn and forceful man. She seemed to recall that it was written by one of the Avalons.
Avalon apparently didn't have any Amalias.
They really do believe in faerie tales there, don't they?
There was an alcove upstairs that Valentina had made her way to. From here she would be able to see arrival of the poor savior who had thought marriage to a Bonaventura was a good idea. Already she could see the servants scrambling, her father shouting for wine to be brought. And all the while her sister and mother waiting in silence and watching like hawks.
"…been trying our best to get the roads repaired, Signore Rinaldi. Again, I must apologize for what must have been quite a nuisance in getting here…."
"Think nothing of it, Bonaventura…." Valentina noted that the cloaked figure did not call her father "Lord". His voice was a rich tenor, calm and steady even despite the chaos of the storm.
"You! Get his cloak! And where is the wine I asked for?"
A servant hastily came to take Alessandro Rinaldi's cloak. Valentina inched forward to get a better look…
(…It is his eyes you notice first. Grey and green, he reflects away the light with them. He is quite handsome…all clean-shaven and young… pale white hair….)
The girl bit back a cry as her eyes widened in terror. From my dream…it's Him! He's come for me!
No, it can't be…it can't be the same man. He's asked for your sister's hand. This one would have no interest in you. Breathe, little mouse, before they catch you. She's told you to stay away, so do so! We will go to Father Fiore tomorrow, tell him. He'll keep you out of the way-
-so Amalia's receiving will go smoothly. Rinaldi's NOT here for you! No one would be here for you….
Valentina crept away to her room unseen, she thought.
"My jewel Amalia," the Lord Mayor presented his eldest to Alessandro. Amalia curtseyed and smiled.
"Indeed," Rinaldi nodded. Unnoticed by the others, his eyes drifted up towards the stairs. It always paid to be observant to the surroundings. A hint of a gasp...a scurry of movement…a glint of fear in a pair of eyes.
"We have prepared a dinner in your honor, Signore Rinaldi," said Iolanda. "Sit and enjoy. I'm sure you must be famished after your journey-
Amalia butted in. "You must have many interesting tales about your exploits, Alessandro. I would love to hear them."
Francesco motioned Amalia to be quiet. "And tomorrow perhaps, we can, ah…discuss the arrangements?"
The movement upstairs had ceased. A small dark smile appeared on Alessandro's lips.
"That would be quite suitable."
"You ask for too much, Signore Rinaldi!"
"I assure you, Bonaventura, the dowry I ask for is quite reasonable. And in return, not only will your town be better protected, but you will be helping me and our Prince." Alessandro raised an eyebrow and idly added, "You do wish to help our Prince, do you not?"
"Of-of course!" The Lord Mayor stammered. "It's just that paying for the garrison, on top of the repairs our town desperately needs AND for yourself as well-!" he wrung his hands.
"As I have said, my needs are many."
Rinaldi stepped towards the window. The rains had stopped and a raven-haired girl was trying to hide herself in the privet maze in the garden outside. Always, looking over her shoulder, looking around….
He smirked. They never think to look up…save for begging to a god.
"There must be some kind of an agreement we can reach, Signore…." Few could imagine that they could hear Francesco Bonaventura pleading.
"I hear you have another daughter, Francesco. She wasn't at dinner last night though?"
"No, ah…" The sudden change of topic startled him. "…she was unwell. We didn't think it would be fitting…."
"I see. If Amalia weds, what will become of her?"
"Valentina lacks the Gift," Alessandro could hear the hint of disgust in Bonaventura's voice. "Both she and the town priest have been asking me to let her take vows. I may finally have to…."
"Seems a waste," Now the girl was holding up her finger to a butterfly, letting it land and crawl up and down her hand. Rinaldi glanced back towards the Lord Mayor, a pointed look upon his face. "I'm sure your daughters are close to each other." His eyes narrowed and he grinned softly. "Veryclose."
Bonaventura pounced upon the hint like a man desperate for water. "Oh of course! Valentina was heartbroken with grief when she heard her sister was leaving!" The lie didn't fool Alessandro for a moment, but he just merely smiled. "Thatwas why she wasn't at dinner last night. Sick with grief, you understand of course."
"Of course," echoed Rinaldi. "I am not an insensitive man, Lord Mayor. I know the need for family and it would be a shame to tear the girls apart. Let me take Valentina in and say, half of what I was asking in terms of dowry? Perhaps you're right about the necessary repairs…I'm sure the Prince would like to visit this town soon. It wouldn't do to present Barolo like this to him."
"The Prince? T-to come here?" Bonaventura looked lost for a brief moment, but then he forced himself to look calm. "Your offer is more than generous, Signore Rinaldi."
The door was thrown open and in stormed Amalia. "Sell your house, Father…sell everything you have, but I will NOT share my husband-to-be with that guttersnipe! Or there will BE no wedding in the first place!"
"NO!" she screamed. "You have let Valentina live for too long! I will NOT have her ruining my life by her existence anymore!"
Alessandro looked on the scene with some amusement…
…then calmly stepped forward and slapped the Fate Witch across her cheek.
Amalia gripped at her cheek, blinking and not fathoming what had just happened. The blow did more to shock her than to hurt her. The Lord Mayor stood frozen, not knowing what to do and fearing what was to come.
"You…you DARE?" Amalia's voice dripped with rage. Already Francesco could see her fingers twitch.
Alessandro just stood his ground, the amused expression never leaving his face.
"You seek to have me AND her? No no no no NO! No, I will make you BEG just for me!" Furiously, Amalia clutched for the Threads, seeking to make this so-called "Man of the Prince" desire only her. She tried to pull…
…and felt nothing in her hands. Alessandro looked at her blandly and shook his head.
Amalia's powers had never failed her before. "A trick…an artifact…."
"Look at me, Amalia…look at me…. You didn't last night."
She closed her eyes, directing herself to See Alessandro's Threads. "Nothing…." Unreadable. Untouchable. Her throat felt dry. "Prophets…."
"Leave us, Bonaventura…I must talk with the girl. I think we will have no arguments about the new terms now," Rinaldi then added with a smile. "And worry not about the Prince's upcoming visit,"
"She tried to twist the Fate of the Prince's Hand? And you just let her?" In another room, Lady Iolanda snarled at her husband.
"It all happened so fast! But she didn't do it…" Francesco bit the inside of his cheek. "She couldn't! She said there was 'nothing'."
"Nothing?" Iolanda blanched. I should have checked him myself!"Rinaldi didn't…didn't do anything to Amalia? The wedding-?"
"-apparently is still going on. We may even get the Prince himself to attend." He chuckled nervously. "I even managed to convince Rinaldi to take Valentina as part of the dow-" Francesco suddenly stopped and looked at his wife. "Your prediction!"
"Nothing, husband. Fate smiles on us now…."
"Tell me, Amalia…why do you dislike your sister?" Alessandro's voice was steady, but his eyes seemed to look right into her.
"Because…she's nothing. A mistake." Amalia barely noticed herself speaking. "My father wanted her killed but Mother wouldn't let him. Said she'd be destined for fortune and power."
"Really," murmured Alessandro. "But you have power and you're the firstborn…why should that matter?"
The Fate Witch gave a small snort.
"Unless…you couldn't use your power. Not on her anyway. How do you prove you're something if you can't show off?"
Amalia glared and said nothing.
Rinaldi smiled again, and it chilled her. "Tell me what it was like when you killed Christos."
There was a sharp intake of breath. "I-I don't know what you're talking about!"
How did he know? No one knew...not even Mother!
"You were twelve years old…'Who would care about the son of a stablehand?' you probably thought. Or maybe you just wanted to scare him. But you tugged too hard. It left a mark…" Rinaldi traced a finger down Amalia's right arm. "…right there. His fate was sealed when the horse was spooked. Now why do that?"
His eyes never left her face.
"He…he smiled at 'Tina…and she laughed…."
"Why should that have mattered? He was beneath you."
"Because…because she doesn't deserve to be happy!" Amalia suddenly hissed. "Mother, Father…they said she would have fortune and power in her future! They didn't tell me mine! I had to See it myself! It's black…death…." The last words she choked out. "She's nothing, praying to an empty Theus…it's not right!"
Alessandro gave a throaty chuckle. "You see it all as fixed, young strega?"
"Yes…" Amalia lowered her head.
"I walk outside Fate, Amalia. It has no power over me, for good or for ill. You know this." He leaned in close. "Think how it could be for you…."
She blinked at that. Alessandro continued. "You feel you're just a pawn in the Great Game. Well, I seek to rewrite the rules for a bigger playing field. And I know how to do it. But I can't do it alone." He shook his head slightly, grey-green eyes glinting knowingly. "Work with me, Amalia…you know what it feels like to be in control. I can give you that opportunity again. And the Black Threads don't need to be there for you…."
"Let me kill my sister," whimpered the strega.
Again he chuckled. "As I have a need for your powers, so to do I have a need for her. Certain…wishes that I know you have no desire to be a part of…."
Amalia shivered in spite of herself. "She will get what she deserves?"
Alessandro grinned broadly. "Of course." And as will you.
The gardens were peaceful and still. And the privet maze always seemed to be such a challenge to Valentina no matter how many times she passed through.
A few moments more, then to the chapel….
A cough interrupted her reverie. "Quite a day, isn't it?'
Valentina froze. The voice behind her belonged to Rinaldi. She felt herself press against the shrubbery. "I…I should go. I will not disturb you." She tried to step past him.
"Now why would you do that?" He smiled cagily at Valentina. "We've only just met."
"Be-because, Signore…you are engaged to my sister. It would be better if I left."
"Are you afraid of Amalia? You shouldn't be. She's quite harmless."
Fragments of the nightmare suddenly came unbidden to Valentina…her sister holding the Threads, choking her with them.
"Please let me go, Signore. I-"
Alessandro put a finger to her lips. "Hush, little one. I only wish to know you better. You're rather pretty, you know…."
Valentina's eyes widened. "It's not true! Don't say that! If she hears-!"
"Then she hears." Alessandro smiled again. "Worry not, Valentina…that's all she can do." He reached out to stroke her cheek and she stiffened. "You're frightened of me?"
Rinaldi cocked his head and stared at Valentina for a moment. She felt his eyes wash over her, like cold water. Then he just laughed. "And not just because of your sister, it seems Still, I do look forward to our time together."
Valentina shrank to the right. Nearby she thought she remembered an area of the wall where the privet wasn't so tightly packed. "What…what are you saying? You're marrying Amalia."
"And you. Your father agreed to it. Sisters shouldn't be parted."
Second wife. Vedova."…no…" She felt a cold lump in her stomach as she shook her head. Her arm was behind her back, frantically trying to find the opening. "…no…"
"I have many things I wish to show you, Valentina. Many things to teach you…." Rinaldi's eyes narrowed as he stepped closer…one hand reaching out for her.
"Sweet Theus, NO!" Valentina felt the gap in the hedges and dove into it. She ran….
Alessandro looked after her retreating form. A grim smile touched his face. It was inevitable that the girl would try to resist. Still…it would make the outcome all the more sweeter in the end.
"Father Fiore!" Valentina was crying and out of breath. "Father Fiore, please…I cry sanctuary! Please protect me!"
"Valentina, my child, what is it? I heard about your sister's engagement." Father Fiore rushed to the girl's side.
"…marriage…and me as well! My-my father…I can't! Evil…"
"Valentina, slow down. You're going too fast for these old ears."
"I saw…saw the man my sister is to marry," Valentina swallowed. "Father, he's the man in my dream! The Serpent! And now…now…" she tried to hold back the tears and failed. "…now he's marrying me too. He convinced my father. He's evil, I can feelit!"
Father Fiore frowned. For some noble families it was typical to have girls without Sorte as part of the dowry. It wasn't something he agreed with, but it was Vodacce custom. Still, with Valentina so frantic and convinced...
What if there's something to it?
"Sit down, child. We will think on this."
"Don't send me back, please!"
He hugged the girl. "I won't, child. I won't. But if what you say is true, then we haven't much time. You know-"
"That this would be the first place her family would look?" The voice was clear as it echoed through the chapel.
"You are not plotting treason, are you Father? I would so hate to tell my Prince that I had to execute a so-called holy man for trying to interfere with my wedding," He gave Valentina a thin smile. "I must thank the Mayor. His horses are indeed swift."
The girl's eyes widened with fear as she shrank behind the priest. Father Fiore just looked at him sternly. "She has claimed sanctuary. She is under my protection and Theus' as well. You dare not violate that."
Alessandro merely chuckled. "Yet I act under the blessing of Prince Mondavi himself. And I assure you if you violate that, his punishment will be much faster than Theus'." Again he looked at Valentina, grey-green eyes glinting in the dim candlelight. "Come home, Valentina. I'm offering you a better life than this."
"N-never...," Valentina shook her head. Her mouth felt dry but she forced herself to speak. "Kill me if you have to, but I will not go back!"
"Your fears of me are unfounded, little one. And your death would serve no purpose," Alessandro's eyes narrowed as he stepped forward and drew his weapon, a broadsword of patterned Crescent steel. "But if it is death you want, I'm sure another target could be found."
Father Fiore tensed, but made no effort to move. "Killing me serves no purpose either, Signore."
"I beg to differ," Now the point of Alessandro's sword was at the priest's throat. "You were planning to have my betrothed escape. That alone is a punishable offense."
"No..." Valentina gasped. "Please d-don't!"
"He'll not do anything here, Valentina," Father Fiore tried to sound reassuring, but now his own heart was racing.
"I have my Prince's blessing to do as I see fit in this matter. More importantly, I have her father's blessing as well," There was no trace of amusement now in Alessandro's voice. "One way or the other, you are coming back with me, Valentina..."
He flicked his wrist ever so slightly and a thin line of blood began to trickle on Fiore's throat. The priest gasped sharply and clutched at his throat with one hand.
Just a surface wound...he won't do anything more... Again Father Fiore tried to interpose himself between Valentina and Rinaldi, but now the sword was pointed at his heart.
"...the question remains just how much blood do you want to have on your hands when I bring you back?"
Valentina saw the icy fury in Alessandro's eyes, the blood on Father Fiore's cassock. "No...please no! Don't kill him!" She choked back a sob. "...I'll return with you. Just spare his life...please."
Alessandro looked down at the priest in triumph as he grabbed the girl's wrist and pulled her behind him. "Interfere again and there will be no mercy..." His cold eyes never blinked. "Alessandro Rinaldi swears this, old man."
Father Fiore could only look on helplessly as Rinaldi dragged Valentina away. Theus forgive me, Valentina! I could not help you when you asked. An involuntary shudder went through the priest. Protect her, oh Lord, for that man is more than what he seems...
The Lord Mayor wanted to beat his disobedient daughter when they returned, but Alessandro would not hear of it.
"She was unsure and frightened at first," He said coolly. "She knows better now."
Amalia only looked upon her sister with contempt as her father just nodded. "You will be leaving tomorrow then, Signore Rinaldi?"
"Yes. I wish to show my brides to Prince Mondavi. We will return in two weeks. That should give you plenty of time to prepare the town for our wedding, Bonaventura. Your chapel is quite lovely, though I am sure you will not mind if our Prince brings one of his own priests to oversee the ceremony?"
"Not at all!" He grinned nervously. Valentina just cast her eyes downwards.
"We will see to everything, Signore Rinaldi..." Lady Iolanda smiled. "Your carriage is already being prepared for tomorrow's journey." Her eyes drifted towards her daughters. "All will go as planned, won't it, girls?"
Both Amalia and Valentina nodded, disgust and fear still appearing on their respective faces.
Iolanda simply purred. "Good."
Valentina's palms were already sweating as she crept down the darkened hall. If she was caught now-
She paused. Every creak made by the house settling was only amplified by her fright. At this hour everyone had to be asleep: her parents, the servants, Amalia...
Dear Theus, please don't let him be awake!
Valentina had already made her way down to the pantry, gathering a few oranges and a small loaf of bread. She tied them up in a bundle and her eyes were drawn to a small carving knife. A weapon, or at least the illusion of one. She bundled it up as well. Only a few feet away was the door to the outside that the servants used.
Again Valentina hesitated. Part of her mind was screaming that this was insane. She had nowhere to go or hide.
Not even to the chapel...he'll kill Father Fiore for sure.
She bit her lip. Rinaldi might have him killed anyways even if she didn't go.
I cannot stay here!
And with the first determined look in her eyes, she carefully opened the door...
"WHERE IS SHE?"
The Lord Mayor was furious as he stormed through his house. That damned child of his was missing again!
I should have had her killed from the start! Now she will ruin all of us!
In contrast, Alessandro was disturbingly calm. "I had a man watching the chapel last night. He found no trace of her there. Now you tell me, Bonaventura, where else she could have gone?"
His demeanor chilled the Lord Mayor. "I-I don't know! My servants are searching the house and grounds. She knows no one else in the town except the priest! And everyone else would have known better than to aid her!" That was at least true in part. Word had spread of the anger of the Lord's Hand in the chapel.
"Then we will search the town thoroughly. Every stable and farmhouse. What about the harbor?"
"We only had one boat at dock," Bonaventura suddenly swore out loud. "They were scheduled to leave today-those accursed Explorers! She couldn't have gone with them...she wouldn't have dared!"
"We will see," growled Alessandro. "See if they've departed and stop them."
"I will have this shame obliterated!" cried Bonaventura in rage. "Burning is too good for her!"
Alessandro suddenly turned on Bonaventura. "Touch her not!" The Lord Mayor could see the anger in Rinaldi's eyes, like a snake coiled and ready to strike. "She is under MY providence now, Bonaventura. Now go to the harbor! See if she has made her way there or not. Only then will we talk of bringing the Swordsmen in. But I will deal with her as I see fit!"
Francesco blanched. "You...you are more forgiving than I am, Signore."
Rinaldi just waved him off. He cocked his head at the sound of light footsteps approaching him.
"A shame about my sister," Amalia said, unconvincingly.
"Pray she is found safe, Amalia," hissed the Prince's Hand. "And pray that you have nothing to do with Valentina's disappearance. For if that is the case," he turned towards the girl. "you will regret crossing me. The things I have in mind I could very easily use you for instead."
And he left the room leaving Amalia more than a little afraid.
The Cyrus' Folly had left the river port of Barolo at first light. Only a few minor Numan trinkets had been excavated. Still, the leader of the expedition had been pleased. Perhaps the Explorer's Society would let them investigate the site further. Of course, the only problem had been Lord Bonaventura's asking price.
The current was swift and smooth. They would reach Montaigne in a few days and from there back to Avalon after restocking. The expedition leader sighed and smiled as she took a nibble from a slice of coarse Vodacce bread. She would miss the Vodacce cuisine at least.
"Commander, there's something that we've found on board. It seems we've got a stowaway."
"Bloody marvelous," She rolled her eyes. "No one's been hurt?"
"No, it's a wee little thing. Bartle's thinking it might be a Fate Witch...possibly a Caligari spy." the first mate scratched his head. "Looks like she's speaking only Vodacce and well-"
"-I'm probably better at findin' out if she's strega or not. Very well then." The Highlander sighed as she strapped her claymore to her back, just in case. "Show me."
The first mate took her to where two of the sailors were keeping watch over a teenage girl. It was obvious she was frightened and seeing the blonde woman with the large sword strapped to the back just caused her to tremble all the more.
The commander looked her over, pressing her thumb against her chin as if in thought. "She's no Fate Witch," she murmured after a few seconds. ("What are you doing here, child?")
The girl blinked back a few tears as the woman addressed her in her native tongue. She pulled out a small handful of senators, all that she could find. ("Please help me...I need to get away from him. My family, they don't care! If they-")
The story spilled out of her. Valentina was babbling now, but she couldn't stop herself. Surely they could have some pity on her, even if they were Avalon heretics? If they sent her back-!
"Yer not buyin' this, are ye Commander?" One of the sailors glanced at the girl suspiciously. His Vodacce wasn't nearly as good as the commander's but he was getting the general idea.
She only looked at Valentina thoughtfully, knowing too well the stubbornness of madmen. At least her own grandfather had protected her on that front. But in Vodacce women never had that luxury. "Get her some dry clothes an' fix a place in my chambers for her to stay."
Lady Grace MacKenzie held out her hand to the trembling girl. ("I know a place of refuge for you, child...")