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Written in Red Chapter 3

3 Inchiostro e Ceneri (Ink and Ash)

Midweeksday, Hare Moon 5

The name echoed in Daniela’s mind. Rafe, a foreign name from the north. When the three men entered, Daniela wondered which her betrothed might be. The tall, dark-haired man with chiseled features and sporting three days’ stubble? Or the fair-haired sharp-dresser whose blue eyes and long lashes were almost too pretty to belong to a man at all? She prayed he wasn’t the paunchy older man who stood before the other two. That had to be Bernardo Venieri, Kanassa’s sheriff. He shook hands with Daniela’s father, saying, “Signor Dameso, may I introduce my son, Rafe, and Nicolo Fabrizii, who will draw our contract.”

Not the pretty one, then. It figured.

Daniela took a long look at Rafe’s unruly hair and unshaved face. Perhaps he just couldn’t be bothered to appear presentable for his engagement. If the dark lines under his eyes were any indication, Rafe wasn’t any more excited about the arrangement than Daniela was. At least he’d thought to dress handsomely, though all in black.

While the fathers exchanged pleasantries, a group of flitting birds darted around outside the window, enjoying the first warm day of the year. Rafe bit a hanging thread from his sleeve and stuffed it into his pocket, then crossed his hands in his lap while Bernardo Venieri and Angelo Dameso seated themselves at the table to get to business.

In her mind, Daniela had pictured an engagement as a happy occasion, where the betrothed would sit anxiously, perhaps holding hands, while their fathers hashed out details. Instead, talk of a meager dowry and a date for a ceremony only left her feeling hollow.

“If Daniela’s dowry contains no land, we don’t need to worry about deeds,” Bernardo said. Daniela couldn’t tell whether he was disappointed. Rafe didn’t even blink.

Father responded with a smile, “The lambing season just passed and this summer I’ll sell Daniela’s portion of my estate, since your son has little use for a flock. That money and my dear Clara’s possessions comprise the dowry. It isn’t a fortune but I’ve been honest about its value.”

Rafe stood from the sofa. Daniela thought he meant to walk out upon hearing how little she brought to their union. “Father,” he said, “must we be present?” Both fathers went silent and turned to him. “This is really your business, not ours, may we be excused?”

Daniela found herself suddenly liking Rafe a whole lot more. While she wasn’t sure he made the request solely on her behalf, she welcomed a reprieve from the indignity of hearing her value summed up in heads of sheep and her mother’s trunk.

“Signorina Dameso,” Rafe asked, offering his hand, “shall we walk in the garden?”

She glanced at her father and he nodded.

The garden was admittedly only a few feet from where the two old men comingled while Nicolo took notes, but it felt a world away. She breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you.”

“I don’t care what deal they reach, do you?” His smile told her all she needed to know.

“Not really.” Daniela politely followed, wondering whether Rafe was nervous too. The idea of leaving her home and climbing into a stranger’s bed in a matter of weeks seemed too frightening to voice. Did men have the same reservations? She noted to ask her brothers later. While Andrea had never shown interest in marriage, Francesco once asked for a woman’s hand. Of course, she declined, so maybe seeking his advice wasn’t the best idea.

Daniela scanned the yard for somewhere to go, contemplating what a gentleman from Kanassa might find interesting at Casa Fiordelise. Movement caught her eye and she cringed when she beheld the scene. Luca strode through the yard toward the barn, two lambs under his skinny arms and a bloodstained apron tied about his waist.

Rafe crossed his arms over his chest, the gold embroidery on his black cape catching the light. “I hope you aren’t slaughtering them on my account. We’re not staying for supper.”

Mortified, Daniela chewed her bottom lip as Luca pulled a bloody fleece over one of the lamb’s heads. “They were orphaned this morning,” she said. Heat crept to her cheeks and she kept talking, unable to staunch the flow of words. “Luca fetched in a ewe with a dead lamb to act as their new mother. We put the skin of her baby on them and pen the ewe in a stock while they nurse for a few days. Once her milk passes through them, they’ll smell like her dead lamb and she’ll accept them as her own.”

What a stupid thing to talk about. Rafe was there to have a look at her and sign a contract, not receive a lesson on rearing lambs. “Father’s pasture stretches down to that tree line,” she said, pointing. Hopefully, mention of the Dameso holdings might interest him. “Beyond are the village and the forest that adjoins to Signor Molin’s land.” Her father was a free lord with a sizeable estate on fertile grazing land—a nice house and handsome flock, but hardly wealthy. He remained loyal to his wife’s kin, the doge, though. For some, that carried more weight than gold and houses. Besides, the Venieri family had houses. And money.

Rafe’s uncles owned fast ships and dealt in foreign luxuries, mainly tea and silk. Aristocratic ladies of Kanassa paid dearly for exotic commodities arriving on the first ships of the season.

Daniela liked tea as much as anyone but the thought of laying out an exorbitant fee pained her. Who could enjoy a drink, knowing it cost more than a serviceable pair of shoes? Fortunately for the merchants of Kanassa, the nobility didn’t share Daniela’s reservations.

She led the way back up to the house, Rafe still silent. Daniela wasn’t sure whether he was measuring things up or simply a quietly observant type of man. “You’re a trader, then?”

He stopped in mid stride. Daniela grimaced. It wasn’t unusual for her to think something in her head and say it before she thought it through. Of course, wealth was a consideration when one arranged a marriage, but she was sure no man wanted to be judged by only what he earned.

“What did you just call me?”

“I’m sorry. I only know your name in reference to your honorable father, the sheriff, and the merchants in town. I wondered if you too were in the import business.”

His right eye twitched as he scrutinized her, searching her face. What a very curious man. He turned and kept walking. “No,” he said, finally. “I work for the chancery.”

“Do you enjoy it?”

“What’s to enjoy? I’m in an office all day. It’s hardly an exciting occupation.”

“You must have lovely handwriting,” she said. “I’ve seen documents from the chancery and tried to mimic the unique form of the characters.”

He held the gate open for her. “It’s called chancery-hand and it takes years for our apprentices to master.” His gaze drifted away as he avoided facing her.

“Have I said something wrong, signor? My father may be a bit old-fashioned, but I’d like to know something about the man I’m supposed to marry. What are your interests other than work? Politics? Church? Cards and dice?”

He stopped again and turned to face her.

Daniela stopped too, but not before clumsily stepping on the toe of his boot. She eased backward. His dark eyes, demanding damn things that they were, cut through everything superficial and inflicted maximum discomfort. “What are you doing?” he asked in a low tone.

Daniela, insulted that he would question her, said, “Trying to get to know you. Isn’t that why you came here? Or would you be happier meeting me for the first time before an altar?”

“I don’t think this was a good idea,” he mumbled.

Daniela’s mouth fell open before she could stop it. He didn’t think it was a good idea? Who was he to reject her after only just asking for her hand? She could feel it coming on, something very unladylike about to burst from her mouth. Just before she let the smug idiot have a piece of her mind, her father approached. “Come, Daniela,” he said. “We’re done.”

She glared at Rafe. “Yes. Yes we are.”

*

As soon as the guests left, Daniela took out her ink and paper.

My dearest love,

Why haven’t you sent a letter? When shall we be together again? Soon, I hope. I cannot live much longer without you, I fear. I am like a rose without rain. Without your touch to restore me, I am bound to wither.


She reached under her mattress and found a silver soldino coin hidden there. Hurrying, Daniela crossed the muddy yard to the barn. “Luca,” she said, but he didn’t look up from the lambs he was trying to get to suckle. “Luca, I have something for you.” She waved the coin to attract his attention.

He stood from the ewe’s side, patting her wooly head.

“I have a coin for you if you’ll only deliver a letter for me.”

“No, thank you.” He opened the stall gate and closed it with a bang.

She smiled, leaning against the railing. “It’ll only take a few hours and you get a soldino.”

“I’m not interested.”

“I can’t leave the manor without an escort.”

Luca stuffed hay into a bucket in front of the ewe’s immobilized head. “I’m still recovering from the last time I lied for you.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing, just leave me alone.” An uncharacteristic finality edged his voice.

“Luca, please,” she begged. “I have to see him. I’ll owe you a favor.”

The boy stepped past her, intent on leaving. Stung by his betrayal, Daniela grabbed him by the arm and held him fast. “I said please.”

“What are you doing?” he demanded. “Let go of me.”

“Take him my letter.”

“Get your hand off me.”

Daniela’s nails dug in. “You selfish little prick. You know I can’t tell anyone else.”

Luca’s mouth flopped open. Daniela immediately regretted calling him such a foul thing. “You don’t understand, Luca. Rafe is so odd and awkward. I need to see Lorenzo so I can explain everything to him and he can make this all right and marry me instead.”

“Is that what you think?” he interrupted her. “That Lorenzo’ll marry you?” He stood up taller. “You have as much chance of marrying Lorenzo Navaro as I have of being a senator.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“I know more than you do!” He tore his arm from her grasp and turned to leave.

“Fine,” she yelled, shoving him out the door, both hands planted in the middle of his back.

He yelped and whipped around to face her. “If either of us is a selfish anything, Daniela, it’s you! I’m not helping you anymore. I’ll keep your secrets because I don’t want to be connected to your lies. That I’m doing for my own hide, not yours!”

His eyes welled, halting her angry reply.

Daniela couldn’t recall a time she’d seen Luca so upset. Not even when the weaver boys stole his clothes from the river and made him walk home naked and beg Andrea for something to wear. Daniela wasn’t sure how to respond. He turned and left her standing alone.

Confused, she went back into the house. With Luca acting strange, she was running out of allies. If he wouldn’t deliver the letter to the cottage, she had to figure out another way. Andrea might agree to be her escort. She just wasn’t sure how she could lose him in the woods.

*

As the carriage bumped along toward Kanassa, Bernardo grinned. For almost an hour, he remained silent, clutching the rolled engagement contract while the countryside passed. Rafe slouched against the cushions, knees splayed and an arm over the seat back. Something about the carriage ride relaxed him, or maybe it was the country air.

“Well?” Bernardo asked, having no respect for Rafe’s brief respite.

Rafe fixed his gaze on his father, trying to ignore the amusement in his voice. “Well what?”

“Daniela,” Bernardo hissed. “What do you think of her?” His brows arched.

Rafe turned to his window, hiding a smile.

“Oh no you don’t,” Bernardo said, wagging his finger back and forth, forgetting Rafe was a grown man rather than a naughty child. “You’re not going to start listing all that’s wrong with her. I know that look and I won’t stand for it, not this time.”

“There’s nothing wrong with her,” Rafe said with a sigh. “She was polite and intelligent.” And probably a few more things. “Don’t worry, Father, I’m not going to embarrass you.”

With a nod, Bernardo leaned back in his seat, his eyes still fixed on the side of Rafe’s head. “Is it too late to get that in writing as well?”

Rafe chuckled. His father wasn’t usually a light-hearted man. The doge held his sheriff in esteem and having powerful allies meant powerful enemies followed. “You’ll certainly make Mother happy when you tell her the good news. I’m actually surprised at her choice.”

“Who said the Dameso girl was Cate’s choice?”

An incredulous expression stole its way to Rafe’s face and once there, he decided he might as well own it. “You wanted me to marry Elizabetta Giacomo.”

“Ah yes, we decided against that.” Bernardo brushed imaginary wrinkles from his cape. “Daniela’s mother was second cousin to the doge and her father’s name is generations old.”

“So it really wasn’t Mother who chose her, it was the doge?”

Bernardo sighed. “Next year I run for reelection and I thought it important to both honor his wishes and ally our family with someone outside the city walls, if you know what I mean.”

“You mean without a son in either church.”

“A rarity these days.” Bernardo averted his gaze, squinting against the setting sun’s glare. The carriage stopped as they entered Kanassa’s gates. A city guardsman clinked in his steel armor as he opened the carriage door. After a brief glance at the two passengers in their officials’ chains, he said, “Have a good evening.”

Bernardo’s comment about aligning with a family outside the city gnawed at Rafe as he watched mortared stone buildings pass. He knew he should let it lie, but just couldn’t. “Father, has someone threatened you?”

It took a moment to receive a response that didn’t involve inaudible grumbles. “This city is troubled. Deep within its fabric is woven a corruption bleeding into every facet of our society.”

“You mean Marcello and his pious pirates.”

Bernardo’s brow wrinkled. “He found a taste for power during the war and gained allies.”

“If he keeps pushing, the city will have to push back,” Rafe said, cringing inwardly at the idealism of such a statement.

“Don’t underestimate him. He’s got plenty of muscle and money behind him.”

Rafe leaned in toward his father and said in a low tone, “You don’t have to worry about me. Your money wasn’t wasted on my law degree. I’m well aware of what is at stake.”

Bernardo looked away, shaking his head. Rafe prodded further. “Perhaps I’m reading between the lines, but if you’re implying Marcello wormed his way into politics...”

His father’s crossed arms indicated Rafe was making headway. “The senate?”

The corners of a man’s mouth often revealed so much more than his face. Bernardo’s hinted at all the fears he never voiced. Rafe’s patience wore thin as the conversation brought his woes to mind. “Your oaths be damned,” he said. “If you know who is being investigated, tell me.”

Bernardo shifted his weight, sinking deeper into his corner. “I’m ashamed to say, most of what I know came from your mother and her gossiping friends. Even I don’t know who the inquisitors are or whom they investigate. The doge, alone, is privy to that information.”

“I’m sorry,” Rafe said, lowering his voice. He ran his fingers through his hair, a vain attempt to calm his frustration. “This city is like a chessboard, with the church lining up on one side, across from men who support the doge’s law. So far, it hasn’t come to blows, but with each side fighting for the high ground, it looks like it might soon. If that happens, no one will win, there will just be men who lose and others who die.”

Bernardo’s beard bristled with his solemn frown, leaving Rafe to wonder what the other city officials feared. “Why didn’t the doge step in when Marcello burned the savio in the courtyard?”

“We have no authority over church justice,” Bernardo said, spitting the words out like sour wine. “Marcello is no idiot. He knows the law and is abiding within it for now. Everything he’s done has been on church authority, outside our jurisdiction.”

“Then the laws need to be changed!” Rafe couldn’t contain himself any longer.

“Good luck changing anything as he gains momentum. Soon, he will crush the line he’s danced around for years.”

“Edri has to see what we do. They aren’t so far away they’re blind.”

“Maybe they do and maybe they don’t. If Marcello instigates war, His Holiness might have to back him just to preserve his dignity. With support from the nobility, even the church won’t be able to stand in his way.”

The carriage began to feel much too small a space to have such a serious conversation. Rafe called to his father’s driver, “Zuann, you can let me out here.”

“Nonsense,” Bernardo said. “We’re still a mile from your house.”

“I need to lock the office.” Rafe looked out the window as the carriage slowed.

“Come to dinner, Midweeksday. Your mother will want to talk about the wedding.”

A small concession to please his family. Rafe opened the carriage door. “I’ll be there,” he said, turning back. “Good night, Father.”

Rafe entered the chancery, the allure of fresh pigments and ink welcoming him with a comforting scent. Only two of his employees remained at their desks. “You may go,” he said, turning out a lamp on a nearby table as he made his way for his office.

The scriveners didn’t need to be told twice and began packing away their workstations. Rafe sat at his desk, head in his hands. He regretted confiscating the other keys but preferred being the only one able to access the office, even if it meant he must work late to close up at night. Things kept in the office could ruin lives. His eyes fell on a portrait of the doge in regalia. The handsome younger face of His Excellency, painted a decade earlier, came with the office. Rafe kept it proudly on display, as a reminder of sorts.

Daniela’s unintended question echoed in his head. “You’re a traitor, then?” Rafe shook his head to clear it. With his mind haunted by past mistakes, even his ears played tricks on him. Paranoia, an ugly beast once unleashed.

When the outer door closed, Rafe rose and took a ring of keys from his pocket. He unlocked a strongbox under his desk and took out a small brass key. Another, he found tied to the inside of his drapes, and the third he pulled from between the pages of a musty old tome on a shelf.

With all three keys in his hand, he took the portrait down, revealing a safe. Surer than he’d ever been, he unlocked the safe and removed four sealed scrolls wrapped with hemp twine.

He leaned on his desk and held them up to the light. His writing was illegible through the fine parchment, concealing the damnation within. Under a seal of wax and a flimsy cord, were the words ensuring a vast tract of land confiscated when the war in the principalities spread south, fell under Radan rule. Thousands of acres of fertile fields and hilltop fortifications, taken from condemned heretics, soon to be released from a six-year vacancy period. If no heir turned up to lay claim to the estates, the doge would use them as grants or auction them for revenue.

Marcello feared the land would go to nobles who might fill the keeps with soldiers to support the doge and strengthen the defenses of Kanassa. Citing an obsolete religious statute, the church laid claim to the vacant land. Thin as the parchment upon which it was written, of course, but all Marcello needed was a lawyer to fight the case. One who could win.

Rafe dug his thumbnail under a wax seal and unfurled one of the documents. He dragged the lamp near and removed the glass. As the corner of the first letter caught fire, he stared at the blackening curl. He was no one’s pawn.

When a pile of ash lay on the desk, Rafe leaned back in his chair, content with the freedom he felt, if only momentarily.

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