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Written in Red Chapter 6

6 Lettera senza Firma (Letter with no Signature)

Scholarsday, Hare Moon 8

Yvette stole through the forest, back to the cottage, avoiding the roads and river. She preferred to take the long way than allow someone to follow her to the hideout. The list of safe houses was running as low as their list of allies.

When Yvette approached the cottage, it was dark, a man’s shape visible on the porch, nodding off in a rocking chair. The brothers were easy to tell apart. It was Laich, his spectacles reflecting and close-cropped dark hair a stark contrast to Thorne’s blonde locks.

Yvette kicked his boot, startling him awake. “You’re lucky. The last man who fell asleep on guard duty woke when an arrow took the hat right off his head. Don’t let it happen again.”

Laich grunted, wiping drool from his lip. He sat up, adjusted his spectacles, and blinked. “I wasn’t prepared to stay up half the night.” He yawned and stretched, then repositioned in his chair. “Marcello would never find you living out here in a border village. Why not just run?”

Yvette stopped with her hand on the doorknob. A good question, one she’d given a lot of consideration. She’d lived happily inconspicuous for six years, coming out of hiding only after Vincenzo lost a duel and nearly bled to death.

The simple answer was that after her betrayal, Marcello would never stop hunting her. And, after his subsequent retaliation, she would never stop hunting him, either. “I have unfinished business in Kanassa before I can retire to the country.”

“This cottage… whose is it?”

“It belonged to Claudia’s uncle, an old fisherman.”

“And that boy lives here, alone?”

“His mother worked at Rosa a Mezzanotte. When she died, he had no one to care for him so I brought him here. Claudia’s uncle passed away last year, leaving him alone.” Laich’s frown drew Yvette’s weariness to a sharp edge. She didn’t want to debate. “I couldn’t very well bring him back to Kanassa, could I? Raise him up in a brothel?”

“I suppose not.”

“It isn’t easy to find a home for a deaf boy with no education. I do the best I can—pay the rent and hire a woman to bring him food and clean clothing once a week. When the time comes, I’ll buy him an apprenticeship in Kanassa with a cobbler or turner.”

The corner of Laich’s mouth twitched into a sly grin. “You do a lot for a child of a dead friend. More than most would do.”

Yvette didn’t say anything as she stepped past him into the house. She headed straight for Vincenzo’s room, pushing the door open. Claudia sat bolt upright in the bed. “Get out,” Yvette growled. The sleepy courtesan wrapped a blanket around her and fled.

Vincenzo stretched his arm over the empty pillow. “I hope you have a good excuse for driving off my only comfort in a house with no fire.”

“I do.” Yvette took a seat at the table. Her fur wrap slid over her shoulders when she leaned back in the chair and drummed her fingers on the wood surface to think.

Vincenzo rose onto one elbow. “That old bastard, Vioni, knew I was coming for him.”

Yvette’s fingers stopped in mid tap. “Did he?”

“I’m not telling you that to make excuses for my stupidity; I think we have a rat.”

A pit opened in Yvette’s stomach that threatened to swallow what was left of her resolve.

Vincenzo sat up the rest of the way. He searched her face. “You knew?” he demanded through clenched teeth. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

She stood and paced. “I suspected it. I don’t have any proof or an idea who it might be.”

“Really?” he growled. “Not even a guess? I can’t help noticing our silent partner isn’t here.”

“I left to send him a message but I don’t think it’s safe to communicate until the rat’s found.”

“On that we agree,” Vincenzo said. “Especially if he’s the one selling us out.”

“You’re barking up the wrong tree, Vincenzo. It could be any one of our contacts.” Yvette pulled her cloak from the chair. “But, I’ll follow him for a while, just to make sure.”

“What? Right now?”

“No,” she said with a wry laugh. “I’m off to bed. In Kanassa. I’ll trail him for a few days. If something turns up, I’ll let you know.”

“You want me to stay here? What if Marcello’s lackeys know about this cottage?”

Yvette didn’t make a habit of overlooking things or disregarding the ramifications of her actions. “They’d be here right now.” She pulled the pins from her hair. “We have two choices, the way I see it. We can test our contacts one by one and see whose information leaks, or we can limit all communications.” She hadn’t had time to think of anything better.

His eyes narrowed. “Something’s got you spooked. Where did you go?”

“Savio Ventura told me he’d take my message to our partner if only I’d name him.”

“Tell me you didn’t.”

“Of course not,” Yvette snapped. “The priest might have been honestly trying to help, but something felt off. I saw hoof prints around his drive in the moonlight when I left.”

“Alright. No written communication through contacts, just the wall.”

“I think that would be best.” She turned to leave.

He chuckled. “You sent that young woman from my bed for nothing? I’m disappointed.”

Yvette hesitated. She should have been furious—should have let loose and laid into him, berating him for jeopardizing everything for the sake of his pride. Something stopped her.

Maybe faith or loyalty. Maybe stupidity.

She turned to him. “You owe me an explanation.”

It took a moment for a response. “Guards were waiting for me.”

“City guards?” Yvette mused, folding her arms across her chest. “So either our rat reports directly to Vescovo Vioni or Marcello is keeping his distance from this for a reason.”

“Why do you say that?”

“It would appear strange if Edrian Guards, Marcello’s personal footmen, were stationed at a vescovo’s house, don’t you think? Might raise a few questions in the church or government.”

He scooted over in the bed and patted the spot next to him. “Either I want a warm body in here next to me or so help me, I’ll start a fire. Even if it means burning the furniture.”

Yvette stood before him, tapping her foot. “Don’t tell me you’re carrying a torch for me, Vincenzo. That was a long time ago.”

“You know me better than that,” he said, leaning over to take her hand. He tugged and she dropped into the bed next to him, putting up little fight. He wrapped an arm around her shoulder. “I’m not as young as I once was. I’m afraid I haven’t energy for more than sleep now.”

Yvette laid her head on his chest and pulled the blankets up. She let out a long sigh and he chuckled. “The end’s coming, Doll. Neither of us had any business living as long as we have.”

Recalling a time when Vincenzo had been her only friend, Yvette snuggled closer, their bodies pressed together. “We have tasks to complete before we seek rest, eternal or otherwise.”

He rested a bristly chin on her head. “Thank you for getting me out. I know it wasn’t easy.”

“You’d have done the same for me.” And she meant it.

“That’s true,” he said. “We’ve been saving each other’s necks a long time.”

Yvette laughed. “You’re a damn fool but I trust you with my life. Always will. Even after this.” She poked her finger hard into his sternum. “Why’d you do it, though? I begged you to keep out of Vescovo Vioni’s way.”

“There’s a priest in the Sporting District, Vescovo Navaro. He’s a son of a bitch, that one.”

“I know him. He has some problems with impropriety in the eyes of the Radan Church.”

Vincenzo continued, “He had an altercation over a woman with one of my best contacts and Vioni had my man banished from Kanassa.”

“You went after Vioni because you lost a contact?”

“I went after Vioni because I lost a friend.”

Yvette knew how valuable trusted friends could be. “I don’t understand. Why didn’t Marcello have you killed in prison? Send poisoned food or something?”

Vincenzo yawned. “My guess? For the same reason I didn’t see archers at my execution.”

Yvette sat up to face him. Her voice came out a squawk. “You think he let you escape?”

*

Daniela’s father returned home, dropping his wet overcoat on a chair and shaking his head like a dog, splattering rain from his head and beard onto the floor and table. “It’s damn cold out there.” Daniela helped Stella set the table for supper while Andrea and Francesco shared a bottle of wine at the counter with their father. “Any news from town?” Andrea asked.

“The guild fees were a pervading topic this week, of course. Raised again, so the masters with only one apprentice are working extra time to pay. The city raised guilds’ taxes too, making apprenticeships more expensive. They say you need to have money to make money, but soon the only ones who’ll be able to work are the nobles and they don’t want to.”

“A synopsis, Father,” Andrea said, impatiently. “We don’t need every detail.”

“Damn pushy kids. Five days ago, the Church burned a dozen savio outside the cathedral. The doge is outraged. Merchants flooded the streets a couple nights ago, speaking out against His Holiness, in Edri, and His Eminence, Lazaro Marcello.”

“The merchants are standing against the Church?” Daniela asked surprised. “I thought the Radans took the sons of the wealthy into their ranks.”

“They do,” Andrea said. “But, it’s only the very wealthy that matter these days. Many Kanassan citizens attend services at divine chapels.”

“It’s no wonder,” Angelo said. “The savio and lucindae preach equality and peace and if there’s anything the people of this republic hunger for more than anything, it’s peace and the right to make a fair living. Taxes are on the rise and from where I stand, it appears Kanassa’s government would see its merchants in the poorhouse and its poor in prison.”

“The guilds make it worse,” Francesco said, angrily. “They make certain only well-off sons get apprenticeships. What’s left for those who are passed by? Nothing. The guilds drive them out of town or leave them to become manual laborers or petty criminals to feed their families.”

Daniela balled her fists. “But that’s not fair!”

“Of course it isn’t, Dani,” Francesco said. “That’s why the people are getting angry.”

“It’s nothing for you to worry about, dear girl,” Father said. “Your Venieri isn’t poor by any reckoning. You’ll have a comfortable life.”

Daniela frowned. She still had to find time to tell him she wasn’t going to marry her Venieri. Better to wait a little longer.

Father rubbed an old injury to his right knee. “It seems winter is hanging on for one more nasty storm before the buds pop. If this weather doesn’t flee soon, we’ll be late breaking ground. After last year’s pitiful harvest, we can hardly afford a delay and Molin’s horse is costing me a fortune just standing in the stable. Eats as much as the other two combined.”

“With thieves about, we should hire a few more men,” Andrea said.

“We can’t afford a few more dogs, let alone men,” Francesco grumbled. “It’s going to be you and me, little brother, who must become shepherds this spring.”

Daniela didn’t say anything. She heard the rumors of foreign mercenaries who roved the countryside, nuisances said to rape peasant women and pillage farms. She wasn’t excited about being confined, but she was glad not to be relegated to sheep-watching duties. Tomaso entered the dining room. “Signor Dameso, Lorenzo Navaro is here to speak with you.”

Father ran his fingers through his drying hair, shot through with streaks of gray that somehow made a woman look old and a man look dignified. Even sopping as a drowned cat, Angelo Dameso had a venerable bearing. “Show him in, Tomaso.”

Daniela stood abruptly, drawing curious looks from her brothers. “Father, may I be excused?” He shrugged his response, finishing his glass of wine.

Dashing from the study, she hurried up to her room, where she picked up a book and stared at the pages, not reading a word. Extricating Lorenzo from her mind didn’t come easy. Whenever she thought of him, all she pictured were his soft lips against her skin and the way their bodies fit so perfectly together. Surely, in time he would realize his mistake in denying her his name. After all, they’d grown up together, the Navaro boys and the Dameso children. It was fate.

As the afternoon light faded in the window, a soft knock sounded at Daniela’s door. “Who’s there?” she called.

“Me,” Luca said through the wood. Daniela stood and opened the door, breathing a sigh of relief. She wouldn’t have known what to say to Lorenzo anyway. “Are you alright?” he asked.

“Father was too busy talking with my brothers about the taxes and strife in Kanassa to ask what I’ve been up to. I’m sure when Francesco gets a moment to tell him, you’ll know it.”

“I hope not, for your sake,” Luca said.

He looked concerned and Daniela smiled to reassure him. “Don’t worry for me,” she said, trying to sound confident. “He hasn’t beaten me yet. I doubt he’ll start now that he’s of a mind to marry me off. A girl with a black eye is probably harder to sell.”

“Don Lorenzo gave me this before he left,” Luca said, holding out a folded piece of paper. Daniela took the letter and examined a rose drawn on the top. “I know you don’t think much of my opinion,” Luca continued, “but, it can’t amount to anything good, carrying on with him.”

“I appreciate your concern,” Daniela said, wondering what words the note held. Had Lorenzo reconsidered his desire for her? Recanted his protests? Perhaps he only needed to picture her married to realize he couldn’t share her. Daniela lay on her bed to read, leaving Luca milling.

Meet me when the moon is full. My arms feel empty without you and I cannot stand it. You are everything to me, my darling.

She folded the letter again and slid it under the wooden chest that held extra bedding. The cottage was too far to cover on foot. She would have to steal a horse.

“Supper’s ready,” Luca said. “Are you coming down?”

As she descended the steps with Luca and dined silently with her family and the servants, Daniela never once considered not turning up to meet Lorenzo. Her heart soared when she received the letter and no amount of anger over the previous row would take away her joy.

While her father and brothers passed angry words and ridicule for Kanassa’s government across the dining table, Daniela appeared especially polite, a blithe smile upon her face, drawing a dark look from Luca. No one else seemed to notice.

“Daniela?” Angelo called, interrupting her plotting. “Are you listening?”

“I’m sorry, Father. I didn’t hear you.”

“Signor Venieri and I set a date for your wedding.”

“Have you? I wasn’t aware Rafe was all that impressed with me.”

He stabbed a piece of mutton with his knife. “You can try harder next time. We are meeting him again Thundersday. Maybe wear your blue dress. It makes your hair look lighter.”

Daniela fought the urge to roll her eyes, blinking a few times. She didn’t know which was worse; receiving fashion advice from her oblivious father, who almost never matched in colors; or being told she had to endure another afternoon with Rafe and his lacking social skills.

“Francesco and I leave for Collinaverde in the morning. I expect we’ll be gone two or three days. I want you ready to travel when I return.”

Daniela’s heart skipped a beat. With only Andrea and Tomaso standing in her way, she would be able to sneak out to see Lorenzo. How fortune smiled upon her!

She barely heard another word at supper. Back to dreaming of Lorenzo’ tender arms enfolding her as she slept. Eyes closed, she imagined being in the cottage, its quaint furniture probably unchanged from when Lorenzo’s mother lived there, convalescing from her illness. After her passing, the cottage lay empty, a symbol to the Navaro family of their lost mother and wife. Years passed before it was turned into a hunting cabin, isolated in the forest. A perfect place to await game.

However, Daniela still saw the female touches. Quilts, lace doilies, and teapots were certainly not things a man would have insisted on bringing to a hunting lodge.

*

As Rafe strode through the open gate and made his way up the drive, weeks of insufficient sleep took their toll. He tried not to drag his feet, though his vision blurred and his mind seemed to interpret his environment with an almost surreal clarity. He might have missed the signs of intruders, if only the intruders had been interested in covering their tracks. The message painted plain as day on his stable confirmed something was very wrong.

He stopped and stared at a bloody handprint showing stark against the whitewashed boards in the moonlight. Rafe edged back toward the house and grabbed a lamp off a hook near the door. Shining it toward the stable, he crept across the drive again.

Judging by the silence, Rafe guessed his horses were dead. The stale, metallic scent certainly hinted as much. He opened the latch and pulled his arm back to let the door swing open.

The lamp revealed his two chestnut mares, lying with their slit necks one atop the other. Blood-soaked hay reeked, the air so thick Rafe had to step back before his stomach rebelled.

Sleeve pinned against his nose to keep from gagging, Rafe stumbled rearward, catching his weight against the side of the house. Pity for his slain steeds melded with anger at the blatant threat. Rafe reconsidered his plans to forgo the morning’s church service and simply pay the fine for his absence. The last thing he needed was to anger Marcello further or give the impression he was running.

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