1365 - The Valaresso Estate, near Orsino
Caterina stared at herself in the polished silver mirror as her mother's
maids fussed about her. She saw reflected there a thin, flat chested
girl, almost fifteen years of age, who was laced into a grey gown that
was too tight and whose eyes were red and swollen from weeping. The
girl's eyes and her face were as grey as her gown, her expression
queasy. She tried to take a deep breath, to compose herself before more
tears came. The older of her mother's maids, Anna-Maria, hissed at her,
"Oh do keep still, Caterina!", spitefully stabbing her with a hairpin.
Caterina stiffened and tried not to move as her brown hair was pulled
and jerked into an elaborate braided crown. Tears trickled down her
Her mother, the Lady Constanza Valaresso, sailed into the room trailed
by two of her servants who carried her fan and a box of candied fruits.
Her dark chestnut-coloured hair was beautifully coiffured, her gown of
wine coloured silk cut in the latest fashion, but her face was thin and
pinched, with a sour expression.
"Aren't you ready? For Trinity's sake, Caterina. It's a betrothal, not
your funeral. Get some blusher on her, Ninetta, we can at least try to
make her look pretty."
"You can rouge me up like a whore for all I care, mother," said Caterina
bitterly, then gasped in shock as her mother stepped forward and slapped
her across one cheek.
"You watch that tongue. Gods above, why did you curse me with this
disobedient girl?" Constanza knotted her hands together and rolled her
eyes heavenwards. "Carlos Sforza is here with his men and his mother and
he's impatient to have the betrothal documents signed." Constanza
gestured the maids away from her daughter and picked up the hair pins
herself. She moved behind Caterina, looking at her in the mirror
critically. She wasn't gentle as she jabbed the pins into Caterina's
"This alliance is important to your family, Caterina. You are not
expected to understand why, only to obey your father, and me." She
selected an earring from a tray held for her by the maid Anna-Maria,
held it up next to Caterina's face then rejected it, tossing it back
down. Caterina heard her mother sigh, then say to the maids and
servants, "Out, out all of you. I will speak to my daughter alone."
Caterina swallowed as her mother's cortege made their curtseys and
slipped out of the room. Her cheek hurt where it had been slapped, but
mostly she felt numb. She'd felt that way since her father, Lord
Rodriguez Valaresso had informed her that Count Carlos Sforza had asked
for, and been granted, permission to take her as his wife.
"Count Sforza's neither old, nor ugly," said her mother. She laughed
humorously. "He'd certainly like to be richer than he is, which is one
of the reasons he wants to marry you. More importantly, he is cousin to
Angelico Buonavente. You do remember him, I trust?" said her mother,
thin lipped. "And Vincenzo Buonavente, his brother?"
"Yes, I know. The man Fillip fought ..."
"The boy your brother Fillip killed. Over some stupid game of cards. And
for this we have a blood feud with the Buonavente, when our alliances
are few and weak." Constanza slapped down the remaining pins and opened
a jewellery box. "I have thanked the Gods every single day since Count
Sforza approached your father for this alliance. It can not come too
soon. Once you are wed, the blood debt will be forgiven, and Fillip can
come home." Her mother spoke from over Caterina, looking at her in the
mirror as she selected a necklace of gold and rubies. She looped the
chain around Caterina's neck, and was pleased to see it gave the girl
some colour. "Carlos is young, Caterina. Only twenty six. You might feel
scared now but you won't find being a wife to him that bad, I promise
you." Her mother smirked knowingly, but Caterina felt her skin crawl,
and an urge to reach up and rip away the blood coloured stones.
"He's young, and he's already had two wives. He starved the first and
poisoned the second," she said tonelessly.
"Caterina! That's... that's nonsense." Constanza was breathless with
shock at her daughter's blunt statement of what was rumoured. "You ..You
will not say such a thing to him." She shook Caterina by the shoulders.
"You will not breath a word of those ...lies."
"He stinks of death," said Caterina softly, staring at herself in the
mirror. "He thinks a smile, tailored clothes and a handsome face will
hide what he is, but he's a monster. He intends to betray us, mother. My
marrying him isn't going to save Fillip."
Constanza Valaresso stood trying to get her breath, one hand clasped
against her bosom. She sagged onto a daybed and fought to compose
herself. When she could speak, her voice was brittle.
"You can not possibly know any such thing, Caterina. You're just a
selfish girl who doesn't want to grow up. I am fed up with these ...
these delusions of yours. I should have let your father whip it out of
you, as he wished to." Constanza squeezed her hands into the folds of
her gown, white-knuckled. "Thinking you can somehow tell what people
have done or are going to do. It was annoying in a child, when all it
did was frighten the servants or make them disloyal to us when you
ferreted out their secrets, but carry on this way and you will find
yourself friendless in your husband's house, or worse. What if he should
accuse you of witchcraft?" Her mother managed to get to her feet, lips
set in thin line of dislike as she stepped to the door. "Count Sforza
can stink of fish to you, for all I care. Be ready to come down to sign
the betrothal contract when I send up the servant to you."
The moment was upon her and yet she hadn't woken up from the nightmare.
The Justiciars from the Sforza and the Valaresso households were dressed
in black velvet and stood to either side of the altar in the Valaresso
family chapel. They were both elderly, white bearded men. Justiciar
Benedict had taken the long plumed quill from out of Count Carlos
Sforza's hand and was holding it out to Caterina, leaning a little
forwards over the documents spread on the altar with his finger pressed
to where she must sign.
Caterina's father, Rodriguez Valaresso stood to her left side, his iron
coloured hair cropped short and his face weather beaten. He wore his
black enamelled armour, to emphasise to his intended son-in-law that,
though he was in his fifties, the head of the Valaresso family was still
a martial man.
Carlos Sforza stood to Caterina's right. He must have bribed one of the
servants to learn what Caterina would be wearing, and had matched her
grey dress with a grey velvet doublet, breeches of dark grey silk
patterned with light grey stripes and grey slippers. His silver hilted
rapier, sheathed in black leather, was worn slung low across his left
hip and the overall effect was very handsome. Carlos' mother, a straight
backed woman with ash-blonde hair, stood next to Caterina's mother, clad
all in black. To all appearances she gazed proudly at her son but when
Caterina caught her eyes for a moment, she saw something trapped and
frantic within them. This was a woman who knew what her son was, and was
terrified of him.
A bead of black ink ran down Caterina's shaking fingers. Carlos Sforza
picked up a folded blotting cloth from amongst the scribe's tools
resting on the altar and took her hand. He dabbed at her fingers,
catching the bead before it could spatter onto the betrothal document.
"There," he said, "but perhaps you should sign now before more ink
stains those lovely hands?" He smiled gently, to reassure her that he
was not at all impatient with her nervousness. The young Count of
Sforza's expression indicated to all those gathered there that he
already found Caterina quite endearing.
Caterina felt a cold chill sink through her at his touch, as if the
poison he had handled had slipped into her veins through her skin.
Carlos Sforza was surrounded by the stench from the corpse of a woman he
had abandoned in a tower room to starve to death, her body left to bloat
in the summer heat. Caterina felt ill and disoriented, her head
"I can't," she whispered, shaking like a leaf. She looked around her,
round eyed, sweating in her tight fitted dress, for someone to save her.
Her mother glared at her, mouthing "Sign it!" Her father took the pen
from out of her nerveless fingers, and gestured to one of the servants
to assist Caterina to a seat. "Nerves, Count Sforza," he assured the
young gentleman smoothly. "She doesn't eat for days in order to look her
best, then wonders why she feels faint." Rodriguez Valaresso raised his
eyebrows and smiled at Count Sforza as if to say "Daughters, what can
you do?", but the sideways look he gave Caterina was grim and enraged.
He bent over the parchment himself. "If you'll permit, I can sign on her
Carlos Sforza bowed slightly to his would-be father-in-law, showing
there was no offence. "Of course ..."
There was a disturbance at the entrance doors of the chapel. Some of the
servants had been permitted to sit at the rear of the building, to
witness the happy event. The Sforza steward was speaking in a loud voice
and, from his frustrated tone, being ignored by whoever he was
"I don't know how you got past the guards, but you can't come in here!
You'll have to make an appointment. Whatever it is will have to wait,
there's a family matter taking place here. Take your hands off me! How
dare you! Come back here! Somebody, call the guards!"
A sandy haired man, wearing partial plate armour and chain mail strode
boldly up the centre aisle with his helm tucked under one arm, ignoring
the steward who was yapping at his heels like a small dog. Caterina's
father straightened from the betrothal document, angry at the
interruption and impatient to have the betrothal signed and witnessed.
Carlos Sforza only looked curious, though he rested one hand upon the
silver hilt of his sword. One of the Sforza guardsmen stepped closer to
his master, anticipating trouble. Caterina, half sagging in the grip of
one of the servants, wondered if this was someone come to call Count
Sforza out. A relative of the women he'd murdered, perhaps?The man
reached their gathering and presented himself with a courtly bow to each
of the gentleman, and to Caterina.
Rodriguez Valaresso stared at him, face dark with outrage. "You are
interrupting a betrothal. Who the hell are you? What do you want? Do you
carry some message?"
The steward hovering at the man's elbow, hissing, "I told you!" and
tried to steer the intruder away. Caterina watched as the man shrugged
their steward aside, as calmly as flicking off a fly.
"I am Ser Arland d'Baude, a knight of the Cleansing Flame of Elarias. My
purpose here is service to my God. I would have five words of speech
with your daughter, with your kind permission. I carry no weapons and
will depart immediately after I have spoken to her."
Constanza Valaresso nearly choked. Her mother's frightened expression
became vindictive as she turned it upon Caterina. Constanza had never
heard of the Knights of the Cleansing Flame, but just from the name they
sounded like the sort of order that tracked down evil doers and naughty
children who, gods-alone knew how, had discovered their mother's affair
with the family steward, among other secret things.
Roderiguez Valaresso stared furiously and Count Carlos Sforza went at
first red, then his face drained of colour. He suddenly seemed eager to
put as much space between himself and the knight as possible.
Dazed by the interruption, Caterina shook herself free from the servant,
stumbling slightly as she moved forwards to address the knight. "You
have something you want to say to me, Ser?"she asked faintly.
A shaft of afternoon sunshine entered the chapel through a high window
and shone down upon Ser Arland, and though his armour was plain and
rather battered, for a moment it was bathed with gold and to Caterina,
the knight glowed within an aura of light. That could have been
attributed to a fever of relief and the imagination of a sixteen year
old girl, for certainly no one else in the Valaresso chapel saw any such
Ser Arland d'Baude assessed Caterina for a moment as the guardsman
arrived at the chapel door and clattered into the aisle. He nodded
slightly to himself at whatever he saw in her. His dark brown eyes met
and held her grey ones, completely open and inviting her to look within
him. Hardly trusting herself, Caterina stepped a little closer to him.
The knight was perhaps twenty three years of age, with some scars to his
face and hands that spoke of battles fought. His armour was dinted and
repaired, and he valued its tested strength rather than being ashamed
that it was not bright with enamels. Caterina quivered, and inhaled the
air. Ser Arland smelled of cinnamon and she had always loved the scent
Eyes never leaving hers, Ser Arland d'Baude spoke his five words to her.
"Caterina Valaresso, will you serve Lord Elarias?"
Her heart lurched in her chest. All her life Caterina had been
instructed in the doctrine of the Church of the Trinity, but to her
family a show of piety towards the gods was simply part of the politics
of power. She had never felt anything like a calling, and any such thing
would have been mocked by her parents unless there was an advantage to
them in it. What would it mean to make such a promise to this unknown
knight? Perhaps it was only relief at being offered any avenue of escape
from the Sforza marriage, but there was no doubt in Caterina's mind as
she answered him.
"Yes, Ser d'Baude. I will serve."
"Swear it," the young knight instructed her, and Caterina gulped, then
said "I so swear it."
Ser d'Baude nodded as if he had never expected any other answer and then
turned and bowed to Caterina's stunned father and mother.
"My business is settled. Caterina and I will depart at once." He looked
severely at the guardsmen who was approaching, weapons drawn, intent on
intervening. "If you insist on interfering, though I have no weapon, I
assure you that I can kill you and I will, if necessary." He nodded
towards the two Justiciars who were present and standing as shocked as
Caterina's parents and would-be husband. "The choice is hers and she has
made it. She is within the Law, and no one may break her holy covenant
with Lord Elarias."
Caterina's father finally reacted. He waved away his guards, but moved
towards Ser Arland, full of his outrage. "This is not the end of this,"
he promised. He drew himself up, tall and broad and full of fury.
"Caterina has given her promise to the Sforza. An "I do" given to a
Count of the House of Sforza rates just a little higher than one given
to a hedge knight, and I think you'll find that the Justiciars of the
Patriarchal Court will agree with me."
"Why stop at the office of the Justiciars? Why not take up your
daughter's decision with the Inquisitor General himself?" said Ser
d'Baude, still calm but with a gleam in his eyes.
Roderiguez Valaresso blanched. "Why the hell would I do that?" he
demanded to know.
"Because," said Arland, unable now to hold back his satisfied smirk, "It
was the Lord Inquisitor who told me to come fetch her."
Matteo's feet were freezing inside his boots as he hurried his way up
the steep cobbled street towards the gates of the villa. The cold ate at
his toes, despite the thick stockings his mother had, to his
embarrassment at the time and eternal gratitude now, insisted on giving
him during their last meeting. He grabbed at his cloak with one hand and
hitched his robe with the other, striding over a puddle of slush. The
wind whipped around the woollen garments, flinging his cloak up into his
face, slipping its icy fingers through the weaving of his undergarments.
Maliciously it teased at the hem of his cassock, swirling around his
long, stocking clad legs, threatening to lift his robes flapping over
his head. Trying to keep his robes decorously down, he arrived at the
imposing gates of the palace of the Count of Pavia, looking bedraggled
as a wind tossed crow.
Freezing winds swept over the city with the arrival of the first snow of
the season; barely a soul stirred in the hilltop city. The gate guards
knew the novice by now, well enough to wave him through and retreat to a
warm fire in the gate house without even asking him his business.
Matteo crossed quickly through the first small courtyard, his footsteps
muffled over a soft covering of snow as more of it whirled slowly down.
He kept his head bowed, within his cowl and close to his chest,
preserving warmth. Crossing to the second gate he could nevertheless see
the soldiers were still at their posts on the battlements over the
vaulted arcades. The heavy, fur lined cloaks they wore over their light
armour couldn't keep them from the brunt of the wind. Matteo felt pity
for them, stuck up there in the battlements, stamping their feet in
their boots. The icy wind gusted and spurred him into strides as rapid
as his robes permitted and he passed through the second gate.
He was now properly into the citadel. Its stables were on his right,
storehouse and barracks on the left, a wide courtyard with ornate
fountain in the centre. Beyond that, on the far side, six broad flagged
steps rose between reposing lion statues taking him up to the great
bronze banded doors of the Count's dwelling. It was all very impressive
eight months ago, when he'd arrived in the warmth of spring, fresh faced
from the Abbey of St. Benefice. The courtyard had been full of the
bustle of women turning the house inside out for its spring cleaning,
and the Count's newly arrived mercenaries had been strutting about,
idle, their polished armour and the crimson cloaks the Count of Pavia
had gifted them bright in the sunlight.
It was the first days of winter now, and he knew that the grand fountain
of stippled marble with its leaping dolphins was little more than an
ornate trough, used for washing the laundry and hauling water and
bathing babies. The sheen had rubbed off his first image of the
mercenaries, too, whom he'd discovered were a combination of loud,
foolish and drunken when they were not threatening and bullying their
way through the streets of Pavia.
He hastened up the stairs, struggled against the wind a moment to open
one half of the bronze banded doors, until a guard within gave it a
shove that nearly knocked him back down the stairs. "Watch yerself," the
guard grumbled, as Matteo scrambled to keep his feet. "And make yer mind
up, in out. Worse than the damned cat."
The novice wanted to protest that it wasn't his fault his long legs were
growing faster than his slight frame, giving him a scuttling, awkward
gait. For the past couple of years he'd been prone to tangling himself
around air or stumbling over cobwebs, frequently upending whatever
happened to be around him, including people.
Matteo decided to ignore the mercenary's scowl, deliberately forcing his
frown into a big smile of thanks instead. Patience with others was one
of the Virtues and since coming to the household of the Count of Pavia,
it was a rule he'd had plenty of opportunity to practice. He
straightened himself out and brushed snow from his clothing before
continuing on his way.
Excerpted from "Evil at the Heart [Kindle Edition]" by Kelly Grant. Copyright © 2012 by Kelly Grant. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.