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Written in Red Chapter 1-edited

1 Vendetta (Revenge)

Hay Moon 18

Before the summer’s afternoon heat gave way to dusk’s mildness, an old woman clung to a thin ledge sixty feet above the cathedral’s courtyard. There was a time when visiting her old friend—the religious leader of the republic—didn’t involve scaling walls. In those days, she didn’t give the cathedral’s private mercenary security a second thought.

Her left hand slipped, fingers tired from the tenuous climb and the sweat slick replenishing as quickly as she could dry it on her shirt. Her boot toes dug into the shelf below—a narrow foothold, but the only one available.

Falling wasn’t part of her plan. If the impact didn’t kill her, the Edrian Guards below would make quick work of an intruder. Even if they didn’t know her face, they’d know her name—or the one Marcello bestowed upon her. Merciless Doll—originally, he’d meant it as a term of endearment—a dichotomy he found amusing.

In a republic run by wealthy families, names held power. That name held power for another reason. After six years in hiding, returning to Kanassa had been a mistake. She realized it the first time she heard the name again.

Demanding her overworked fingers do their job, she groped around and found a solid grip on a window’s frame. Her breath came in shallow puffs and the tingling edge of fear sapped the strength from already taxed appendages. What might have been a simple task for a trained killer was looking impossible for an old woman bent on revenge.

She peeked through the opening.

Lazaro Marcello sat at his desk, partly obscured by a stack of books. Deep wrinkles lined a plain face bearing a prominent nose. Whether it had been broken in his youth or the gods bestowed the unsightly feature for a reason, it only added to the cleric’s sinister appearance. Irregular, misshapen, and askew, that nose epitomized the old man.

Merciless Doll shook blood back into her hands, one at a time. With circulation returned, she reached for her belt and slid a dagger from its sheath.

One, two, three… the numbers ticked by in her head. It was Lazaro who taught her to count before striking. “Patience,” he always said, “is Rada’s greatest virtue. If you want the gods to guide you, give them a chance to intervene.”

Of course, he’d been speaking of stealth, knowing when to move and when to keep to the shadows, but what a versatile lesson it was. She was happy to show she’d learned it well, considering he was her target.

Bright, polished wainscoting surfaced the walls and thick draperies cascaded from rods to pool on the tiled floor in graceful puddles. Portraits of the vain cleric bedecked the office and one might infer from the very specific style he admired, that Lazaro Marcello deified himself. That, or he and The Holy Light, Rada, shared very similar facial characteristics.

Slip in and strike quickly, and she might escape before anyone knew Lazaro was dead. If she afforded him an opportunity to call for help, she’d be cornered and pay with her life—too steep a price even for vengeance.

“Your Eminence,” a muffled voice called through the hallway door.

“Enter,” the aging cleric said. He slipped his biretta upon his ring of white hair.

Merciless Doll tensed, her left wrist complaining its distress with sharp impulses that felt eerily similar to how alarm bells sound. Precious moments continued to slip by as her pulse thrummed in her throat and ears. A bead of perspiration ran down the nape of her neck, into the moist back of her shirt. She leaned to the side so her left eye could survey the room.

A young man in dark velvet entered the private office. The chain over his shoulders indicated his position as a city official, maybe a senator or councilor of the justice court. He doffed his cap and bowed before the old man. Merciless Doll slunk back toward the outer edge of the window, resting her hands and relying on her ankles for support. If only she’d been quick, decisive.

“I heard a rumor that cannot be true. Has Your Eminence received word from Edri?”

“It appears the word is civil unrest,” the cleric said. “Heresy trials agitate the commoners.”

“And Savio Marco?” the young man’s voice quavered. “Was he among those executed?”

A thick sigh. “Our efforts did not prove his innocence.” The desk chair creaked as he shifted his weight. “Do not blame yourself, councilor. Your argument had merit. However, Edri is a complicated city where powerful men create alliances with dubious intentions.”

“What does that mean? Do you...is Your Eminence implying Savio Marco was...” He strained to say the words without choking. “Savio Marco was...some sort of sacrifice? To what end? He was a humble priest of the Order of Divines, not connected to Edrian politics.”

What reason did the young man need? Power and wealth drove Kanassa’s free republic and priests knew it as well as noblemen and loan sharks. Merciless Doll’s leg twitched, sporadically at first but with increasing frequency—muscles stinging from strain and crying out for mercy. She had to leave before the guard changed at six bells. After, Lazaro would be under watchful eyes while he dined and spent the remainder of the evening in his windowless apartment complete with Edrian Guards at the door to every chamber.

“Some believe a religious treaty of sorts with the Order of Divines would ensure peace in the south,” Lazaro said. “They would see two become one,” he scoffed. “However, segregation maintains our strength—our noble bloodline. As head of our glorious Radan Church, His Holiness must preserve our traditions against any who threaten our solidarity.”

“Savio Marco was no enemy to the Radan Church. Three-hundred years of peaceful coexistence mean nothing if one man dies without justice for preaching divine doctrine.”

“Perhaps that is what they are counting on.” Lazaro’s voice got quiet. “His Holiness has powerful adversaries working against him, even within his closest circle.”

The young man paused, letting Lazaro’s bold statement hang in the air. Perhaps he digested the same unspoken demand Merciless Doll heard—find the one with the most to gain.

“We must ask Rada to protect Savio Marco’s soul now. What good will our voiced regrets and sympathy do him?” Merciless Doll detected it in Lazaro’s voice, a hint of amusement. Just another example of the shameless way he toyed with people. Could a cloud of locusts have regrets, or a lion offer its sympathy? Nature deemed some animals killers, destroyers. Lazaro Marcello was one of them.

The young man’s voice trembled. “This tragedy will not go unpunished.”

Exuding cool confidence, the old man said, “I have influence in Edri. Important people owe me favors. I will help you avenge your friend.”

Curiosity playing cruel jests on her remaining nerves, Merciless Doll dared a peek. The cleric’s crimson hem brushed the floor as he strode toward the shelf on the adjacent wall. He opened a wooden box and took out a small item she couldn’t identify. “I’ve sent a message by pigeon to a contact within Edri’s walls. When I get the name, you must leave for the holy city and locate our traitor, quietly. Kill him before he can profit from the esteemed savio’s death.”

“Kill him?” His dark goatee framed his agape mouth. “I’m afraid Your Eminence misunderstands my purpose. I’m not searching for more bloodshed. I’ll use the law to appeal to His Holiness and have Savio Marco’s chapel and family compensated for his unjust execution.”

A long pause—the room so silent Merciless Doll held her breath. Crouching on the balls of her feet, she waited in the growing shadow of one of the pronounced arches that decorated the building. When Marcello spoke again, his voice adopted his favorite tone—smooth persuasiveness. “The time for diplomacy has passed. Men like you and I, councilor, must take decisive action.”

“While Your Eminence’s concern is troubling, I must remain steadfast. I’m a lawman, not some sword for hire.” The cleric didn’t immediately react. Merciless Doll could imagine his guts roiling at the lawyer’s audacity. Not many had the resolve to refuse Lazaro’s requests. The young man continued, “I’ll write a formal appeal to both the Radan Church’s court and to His Holiness. Your Eminence’s signature would lend credence to my plea for rectitude.”

“Your words will go unheard,” Lazaro said. “These men don’t fear pens and paper.”

“I won’t stop until Savio Marco is exonerated.”

The old man’s voice came back a grotesque echo. “War is already brewing here in the south. I offer you a chance for revenge against the men who orchestrated a heresy trial—a way to staunch the flow of blood before the streets run red as they did in the northern principalities.”

“Courts decide guilt, not individuals who seek revenge. I’ll take my chances and send my letters with or without Your Eminence’s assistance.”

Merciless Doll grinned as the door shut. It almost appeased her bloodlust to hear a crash within the office, and items skidding across the floor. Not quite. The dagger, warm in her hand, reminded her it was time to act. Grave dirt clung under her nails. She wiped her brow with an angry swipe of her sleeve and rolled her shoulders rapidly to loosen them. Daylight was fading and her resolve with it.

When she peered back, the room was empty.

Damn.

She sheathed the knife and reached for the adjacent window. It was a quick climb down a stone pillar, leather trousers shielding her skin from friction. She cursed her momentary appropriation of patience, knowing it might have cost her dearly. Keeping track of a moving target inside the cathedral could be a daunting task.

Merciless Doll stopped in her tracks, one arm on the east face and the other on the north. A pair of men in teal capes stood below. Her feet tried to find a suitable crack between impractical peaks and arches, or the stone blocks themselves. It was no use. She slid.

Desperation driving instincts rusty with age, she reached up, grabbing a statue set into a wall alcove, one of seven on the front of the cathedral. With a divine hand to hold, Merciless Doll pulled her weight up. Lazaro Marcello was surely already downstairs.

She crouched in the shadow of the alcove. The elder, the last divine, stared back at her. His other hand held the scales of balance. Blank eyes searched her face—a haunting reminder of the gods’ unseen presence.

She pounded her fist against the wall and leaned into the cold stone. A fortnight of planning, squandered. Lazaro Marcello was leaving in the morning. She’d missed her chance.

An empty groan attempted to fight its way up her throat but she swallowed it down. In forty-one years, though, patience had never been an easy lesson to learn. Neither was waiting. Or inactivity. Or f***ing patience. She took a deep breath.

Bird droppings striped the side of the elder’s face, adding to his gravity. The outward side of him was soft, brushed by the wind and washed with rain until smooth. The other side had an asymmetrical abruptness to its angles, a harshness that almost made him two distinct halves of the same man—one kindly and the other deranged. The inward eye even seemed to protrude as if in scrutiny. “What are you looking at?”

It was the scales that gave Merciless Doll pause—the symbol of balance, acquired wisdom, and law. “You can’t be serious,” she said, to his pensive countenance.

Below, the young lawyer exited the cathedral. The guards ignored him but Merciless Doll watched, tallying pertinent details. Confident stride and elevated chin? He might be young but he knew what he wanted. And he stood up to Lazaro. The last man she’d seen refuse to kill in His Eminence’s name was still being hunted for his disloyalty. She fished in her pocket for a coin but came up empty-handed. “Alright, I’m listening. If you’re right, I’ll make a donation next time I walk past a divine chapel.”

A quick climb, and Merciless Doll found ground under her feet again. She ran at full speed toward the fence and pulled herself over, intent on catching up to her mark.

It took three blocks to close the distance without drawing attention. Falling in beside the lawyer, she pulled a silk scarf from her pocket and wrapped it over her sweaty brow, covering hair cropped short for mourning. “Cross the street and head into that alley.”

He didn’t acknowledge her at first, but after she repeated her command, he ventured a glance in her direction. Serious, dark eyes looked her over. “Who are you?”

“Your only friend right now.”

*

Twenty months later


Freedomday, Horn Moon 28



Yvette toyed with a ring on her left hand, a sense of doom she couldn’t shake hanging over her while she spun the ruby face up on her finger. Laughter and muffled voices seeped up the stairs, blending with a woman’s singing and gentle lute notes in a nearby room. Saffron-colored silk curtains shifted slightly, telling Yvette she was no longer alone.

Sweat and dusty leather heralded his arrival, announcing his identity before he’d even made a sound. “What’s happened to your manners, Thorne?” Her raspy voice cut the sweet music like a dull knife put to warm bread.

“My apologies.” His accent, normally well concealed, revealed itself in small ways. “I’ll remember to knock the door next time.” Yvette found it endearing, the throaty beginning of remember and the way he pronounced the as ze.

He hovered awkwardly, perhaps awaiting a warm welcome. Yvette swept a veil around her shoulders, pinning it neatly in graying auburn tresses. Rising from a pink cushion, she said, “Don’t stand in the doorway. Come in.”

Thorne’s blonde curls and angular features might have weakened her composure years earlier, but Yvette was no simpering girl pining over the handsome young men who flooded the streets of Kanassa’s Sporting District after dark. His light eyes, which might have seemed transparently sincere in her youth, begging her to believe every word he spoke, scanned the room.

Suspicion? How delightful. New to her crew, Thorne and his older brother, Laich, might have promising careers if they didn’t get themselves killed.

Time would tell. Taking two glasses and a mid-priced bottle of wine from a cupboard, she waited for him to speak first.

“I took your message to the Lucinda,” Thorne said, as Yvette poured. “I got more than one odd stare, asking to speak privately with the leader of the Order of Divines.”

“Worth your time, I hope.” Yvette smiled and held out one of the goblets.

He considered a moment before accepting the offering. Did he really think she would slip something into it while he was watching? Some might have been offended by the young man’s hesitation. Clever as he was handsome, it was a shame he hadn’t come sooner, been of Yvette’s generation. They might have run Kanassa together.

“She agreed to help you.”

“Of course she did.” Yvette gestured to the table, indicating Thorne should join her. He took a seat upon rose-scented cushions and splayed his knees, getting comfortable. Yvette tapped a fingernail on her glass. “What does she want in return?”

“Passage on a boat to her uncle’s villa in Santo Dominego.”

The request didn’t come as a surprise. “A steeper price than I wanted to pay. Travel papers to the islands are rare these days. Her promises don’t do me any good if Vincenzo dies in prison before she gets to him.” Yvette took a long drink and set her glass down with a wry smile.

“I just want to make certain she gets to safety,” he said.

“You think I don’t know how to be careful?” Yvette barked.

“I think you risk a lot for a man who calls you ‘doll’ instead of using your name, and got thrown in prison for trying to murder a priest. He’s a disrespectful rogue with his own agenda.”

Yvette was unsure whether to chastise him for his audacity or agree enthusiastically with his apt assessment of her partner. Vincenzo made life difficult sometimes. “I’ll handle Lucinda Cassandra’s escape. You just make sure my letters reach her, and keep me updated on your brother’s progress. It’s been weeks since he’s had good news for me.”

“Laich’s chalkboard is full of scribbled notes and his room stinks. He’s hard at work.”

“We have a deadline. Encourage him to finish quickly.”

“He’s grown tired of my help because I can’t decipher his alchemy babble. Laich is something of a perfectionist, especially with his poisons.”

“One of my partners is in prison and the other is desperate to keep his involvement concealed. This secret is between you, Laich, and me. If we’re going to have a chance of getting Laich’s concoction into Marcello, we need to make sure no one knows it’s coming.”

Thorne’s left eye narrowed almost imperceptibly. “You think there’s a snitch?”

“I always think there’s a snitch. The fewer people who know about something, the better. Haven’t you ever heard the saying?” She moved behind him, her hands gently stroking across his shoulders while she whispered in his ear. “Three can keep a secret if two are dead.”

“That doesn’t bode well for me and Laich, does it?”

His cynical jest reminded her how much they stood to gain—or lose. “If you trust me and this goes as planned, Marcello will be in prison and the Radan Church will suffer a devastating blow. If however, it goes horribly awry, it’s likely we’ll all see each other at the gallows.”

“I’d better get back and help him. I want to see my twenty-seventh birthday.”

She took her hands off him and headed behind her privacy screen. “Good night, Thorne.”

After Thorne left, Yvette poured a second glass of wine. In a threadbare dressing gown, less fit for a brothel than a senility home, she sat on her bead-fringed window seat, watching traffic below. The Lucinda, high priestess of the Order of Divines, was about to free a man who once swore his fealty to Marcello, but broke his word to save Yvette.

If Marcello suspected the betrayal, he would burn the priestess as a heretic. It wasn’t as though Yvette had anything personally against Cassandra, except the fanatical followers of the divines were scantly easier to tolerate than the power-hungry Radan clergymen. Securing a fugitive’s travel papers could be tricky. Luckily, Yvette knew an expert forger.

Muddy ruts in the road filled with flurries, a late spring snowfall. The year steadily trickled by and Rada’s holy day approached. The fates of Kanassa’s citizens would be determined with His Holiness’ impending visit from his seat of power in the city of Edri.

“To youth,” Yvette said, raising her glass alone. “At least they don’t leave withered old corpses.” She forced an awkward laugh, finding little humor in her toast. She would have cut off her right arm to go back twenty years, to a time when the world seemed full of hope and wonder, before corruption spread like a disease through the churches, institutions and government of Kanassa. The young were blissfully ignorant of the strife mounting all around them and Yvette would have paid any price to join them.

*


Scholarsday, Hare Moon 1

As sunlight streamed in through bleached curtains, Daniela donned wool stockings, her gaze falling on Lorenzo, still asleep in the bed. Warm rays crisscrossed his naked back, half-covered by a tatty quilt. His left arm hung over the mattress, hand resting on the floor.

He snored and shifted while Daniela shook dust from a shirt and pulled it over her head, not worrying about the wrinkles—scarcely uglier than rust stains marking it a working-man’s garment. Her cuffs buttoned, she frowned at dirty nails and callouses from her reins.

As she sat on the floor next to the bed, slipping on her boots, a warm hand caressed the back of her neck and Lorenzo’s smooth tenor halted her. “Leaving?”

Disappointment that she had to depart was edged out by delight that she could sneak in one last goodbye. She turned, wrapping her arms around him. “I should already be on my way.”

He brought his hand up to brush her cheek. “When will I see you again?”

“If I don’t get home before my father returns, I’d say, very likely never.”

“We can’t risk that,” he said, grabbing her backside to pull her closer. “Without you to warm my bed and my heart, life loses meaning.”

Daniela bit into his neck, relishing his enthusiastic groan. “I’m afraid you’ll have to keep yourself warm until next time Signor Molin calls for help.”

“Don’t tell me that or I’ll be tempted to hire villagers to poach Molin’s deer.”

Her hand slid over his torso, thoroughly enjoying the rigid contours that defined the knight.

He cupped her chin and kissed her. “A small crime compared to the greater crime of denying our hearts and bodies the gratification of a long weekend alone.”

He rose from the bed and donned underpants, leaving his other garments on the floor as he opened the door. “What are you doing?” Daniela asked.

“Saddling your horse,” he said, flashing a smile, “unless, you already thought to do it.”

After a parting that took entirely too long and left her breathless and aching to stay another night with Lorenzo in the cottage, Daniela rushed home, taking every shortcut.

Casa Fiordelise, named after Daniela’s maternal grandmother, loomed beyond a cypress line. Against the backdrop of the mortared stone manor house, a black carriage waited in the drive—her eldest brother’s carriage and the one her family had taken to Signor Molin’s manor. After three days spent living in the woods and tracking poachers, her father and brothers would be irritable. Their early morning arrival indicated the hunt was unsuccessful or they would have remained with Signor Molin until the afternoon, to see the criminals hanged.

She circled around to the stable and leapt off her mount. The stable hand, Luca, rushed for her, a whirlwind of bony limbs and uncombed hair. “They just arrived but your father called for you.” Daniela tossed the reins to him and dashed toward the kitchen door. “Wait, he asked…”

“Thank you,” she shouted over her shoulder, not sparing a moment. She sprinted for her chamber, careful to avoid the front rooms and instead running up a narrow, rickety staircase used by servants. She prayed her father might be so busy taking reports from Tomaso, his steward, he wouldn’t notice her absence.

When she entered her chamber, the sight of her father standing with arms crossed stopped her in her tracks. No hint of a smile appeared on his unshaved face. Dirt marred his cheeks and dark circles hung under his eyes. Frankly, he looked awful but Daniela didn’t think he’d appreciate her mentioning it. She tried to smile.

“Where were you when I arrived?”

“Out back,” Daniela answered, hoping to placate him with vagueness.

“Luca said you were in the garden.”

She cursed herself for an idiot. She should have heard Luca out.

Father took a step, his size and presence looming over Daniela like a dark cloud preceding a vicious storm. “Where was my Philippa, I wonder? You don’t need a horse in the garden.”

“I’m sorry,” she said softly, knowing she was on a knife’s edge. His calm tone seemed somehow more frightening than the yelling he favored. “I was out riding and…”

He put his hand up to halt her and closed his eyes. “If you insist on lying and acting like a child, I’ll punish you like one. It isn’t safe in the forest and you’re not to leave this house for any reason without my permission and even then, not alone.” He opened his eyes to glare at her.

Cruelty. Not even the gods remitted such harsh penance. Daniela envisioned a miserable existence without Lorenzo’s addictive kisses and warm bed. “Since when do I need permission to ride? You think you can build a cage in which to keep me?”

His brow rose, meeting her challenge. “No, my dear, not me. Kanassa will be your new cage, a gilded maze of palaces and markets as far as the eye can see. A young man named Rafe Venieri asked for your hand. I’m inclined to agree Kanassa is a better place for a half-wild girl who steals horses and servants’ clothes.”

He turned away and said over his shoulder, “He’s coming in a few days to sign the papers. You’re twenty-three, Dani. It’s time you stopped acting like a girl and began acting like a woman fit to be a wife.”

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