by Dana DeVries
A balmy breeze rustled pleasantly through the room and danced across a map of Vodacce laid out upon the desk. Small pewter figures painted in a rainbow of colors were scattered upon the map and showed concentrations of the various princes' forces. Prince Giovanni Villanova sat in a an elaborately carved wooden chair, steepling his fingers beneath his chin as Angelo Lucani reached out a trembling hand to the Squares board between them. His fingers traced across the pieces before grasping his queen and moving it forward.
Villanova's evil smile broadened. "I have always thought that over-reliance upon the Queen is the mark of an inferior player. You've done little to convince me otherwise." His dexterous hands shifted a piece to the side and announced, "You may save your King or your Queen, but not both."
"True enough." Lucani moved his King to safety and took a sip from the glass of wine beside him. Villanova picked up his own bottle of wine and poured himself a little more. "Are you certain you don't want to try some?"
"No, thank you. Scarovese warned to 'Never drink another man's wine. It gives him an opportunity to poison your mind with gratitude.'"
"Not to mention, your body with arsenic."
"Interesting philosophy. Offering up your Queen merely to lure me into a misstep. I wonder what Widow Lucani would make of it? In any case, I decline your offer." Villanova slid another piece forward and captured a rook. Lucani studied the board and then nodded. "That will be game."
"Don't care to prolong the agony?"
"I know when doom is inevitable. I'll skip the frenzied wriggling and squirming to avoid my fate. Perhaps my offer for the Great Game will be better accepted. I came to inform you that the Lady Lucani is accepting offers for her daughter Seline's hand."
"Pity. I enjoy the frenzied wriggling most of all. So is that information or an actual offer?"
"Only if you are searching for a wife for young Maglanis. A wife with powerful Sorte magic at her disposal." With a smirk, Villanova noted, "But a wife with such poor relatives."
"All the more likely to be grateful to you and your son."
"I will consider the matter. Perhaps when you return to pay your wager, I will have an answer."
"Perhaps I should delay my return a few days to allow you to ponder." Villanova's smile disappeared and the room's temperature seemed to drop. "Do not wait too long. I dislike waiting for what is owed to me." Slightly unnerved, Lucani nodded and took his leave. After he had left, Villanova clapped his hands and an old servant entered the room. The Prince waved at the Squares board and the map without saying a word. His servants learned what was required of them or they didn't last long. Moments later, Villanova strode confidently down the corridor of his tower towards his private study. He chuckled and glanced at the clock in the hall as he realized the game had taken longer than he had anticipated. Angelo Lucani was developing into a superb Squares player. Too bad he didn't have the stomach to play a losing game out. Giovanni Villanova enjoyed nothing more than a hard-won victory against a skilled opponent. It was a shame the Lucani's skill didn't extend to the Great Game. His furtive glances at the map had screamed the true reason for the visit - to spy for Widow Lucani. No doubt he had memorized every detail to pass along. And that silly offer of the Lucani daughter. As if he would allow his son to marry the daughter of a defeated enemy when there were better alliances to forge.
Perhaps, Lucani wouldn't concede this game but if Villanova had read Widow Lucani's desperation correctly, she would use her Sorte powers against the strong concentration of Mondavi forces on her former lands. He was certain that the fact they were actually Bernoulli troops would come as an unpleasant shock to her. Bernoulli's counter attack would be brutal and weaken them both. And if the Lucani Curse struck her down for using her powers for the benefit of her family, so much the better. As the Prince approached his private study, he waved one of the servants over. "Where are Maglanis and Ponzio?"
"Milord, your sons arrived ten minutes ago. I told them that you had not returned yet, but suggested they might wait with your wife in your private study."
"I see. And did they?"
Villanova sighed. "Let me explain something to you. My private study is just that. Private. No one is to enter it except in my presence. Not my children, not servants, not my wife and not my mistress. All three of them knew this, but have left it to me to punish you. Mario, you are fairly new to my service and this is your first error, so I will be lenient. I believe have a little son. Ricardo." The servant's eyes opened wide with fear, but he nodded. "He works in the kitchen, correct?" Another silent nod.
"I am reassigning him for a week to stable boy under Robert. Have you met Robert? A nice enough fellow, from Avalon, with a great fondness for children, especially little boys. But not to worry. He will not touch another servant of mine without my permission. I've seen to that. I trust there will be no further mistakes."
Villanova smiled and entered his study as the servant stared after the Prince like a fisherman watching a hurricane as it narrowly misses his tiny boat.
Once inside the study, Villanova glanced around. The bookcases stood filled with ancient Numan and Crescent literature and the journals of secrets in his private cipher. The dark oak paneling still concealed the death traps and secret compartments. His ornate desk was bare of all papers, are was his wont. The stuffed damask chairs were placed before the windows to permit a full view of his city, his island. The only things out of place were the two young boys lying upon the floor before one of the chairs. His heart froze as he knelt beside Maglanis and Ponzio and quickly examined them. No breath or pulse. Ponzio's eight years old frame was smooth and unmarked, his pale face frozen between terror and agony. His small hands were raised before him as if to ward off some blow. Maglanis' body held more clues. Although his eleven years had already marked his face with a permanent sneer, his face held the same emotions as his brother with a touch of anger as well. The back of his left hand was streaked red, but not with blood. It was the carmine shade of his wife's lip rouge. The same color Villanova washed off his own hands after beating his wife. He tore open Maglanis' shirt and there upon his chest was an open slash, like from a whip. A lash mark. A fate lash that had ripped into his son's chest but left the shirt intact.
Villanova paused for a moment. He had asked his sons to kill an obnoxious Fascili merchant who had interfered with his plan to destroy the Bernoulli vineyards. He had meant to make his wife listen to the eager report of their first murder in front of him, but he had been late and the servant had allowed them into the study together. Of course the boys would have blurted out their deeds to their horrified mother. She would have yelled and Maglanis would have slapped her, as he has seen me do. Something snaps inside her and she lashes out with all her powers, all her rage. She kills them both. Standing beside them, she realizes I will be here soon and flees. But where?
Villanova stood, crossed the room and opened a secret door, but there was no sign of her. He opened another and peered into it; again, nothing. Opening a third, he saw traces of a woman's shoe in the flour he had lightly sprinkled there. His eyes narrowed as he realized this was the passage to Julietta's rooms. So! She doesn't mean to flee, but to kill her hated rival while she still has a chance! But how had she found this passage? Only Julietta and the Prince himself used this passage. The obvious answer infuriated him. Damned witches and all their powers! He grabbed a sword from a hidden compartment in the wall and entered the passage. The passage ran quite some distance, twisting and turning around other rooms. He quickly passed by the spy holes and death traps without slowing. Unfortunately, none of them held the body of his soon-to-be-late wife. Arriving at the door at the far end of the passage, he bent down and twisted an unobtrusive knot upon the floor that opened up the peep hole. Peering within he saw only darkness, but he could hear voices with perfect clarity.
"We must get out of here soon." That was Julietta speaking, his mistress. Her voice had always dripped scorn when she spoke of his uneducated wife who had needed the raw power of sorcery to cement her place at Villanova's side. But now Julietta sounded concerned.
"He won't know where I've gone. We should be safe for another few minutes." That of was Valentina, his wife. He had beaten her physically and emotionally into a submissive servant who hated Julietta with a furious green rage, But now her voice held a confidence that he'd never heard before.
"Is that what the strands tell you? I don't believe it for a minute. It won't take him long to find us. His ability to sniff out conspiracy is almost inhuman."
"He hasn't discovered us yet and we've been deceiving him for three years! No, he's only a man. Once we're free of this island, he won't be able to stop us."
"Don't fool yourself, Julietta! He can easily reach anywhere we run, except maybe Vendel."
"It's worth a try. Better to live, to truly live, than this pathetic groveling before him."
"What DO the strands tell you?"
"Only that you and I are braiding a strand of conflict with him strong enough to topple nations."
"That does not inspire confidence. I almost wish you'd lied."
"If you want a pleasant sounding future, never ask a fate witch." Villanova could hear them stuffing clothes into bags and his mind showed him how a wardrobe in Julietta's room could be moved in front of the secret door. A wardrobe that he had bought at her urging. Random details began to collect in his mind. The women's overwhelming antagonizing had been so strong that he had never doubted it. Valentina's denouncement of her rival as an overeducated simpering whore unsuited for his fencing salon, his private study or any other room of his house. He had given Julietta access to both, just to spite the shrew.
Julietta's accusation that her enemy was so frigid that she was surprised he hadn't gotten frost bite and subsequent demonstration of her own skills had convinced him to abandon Valentina's bed entirely - an arrangement that his wife had found very agreeable. The assassins his wife had hired to kill Julietta had been simplistic buffoons, barely capable of killing themselves. He had discovered and killed them far too quickly. His wife's insistence that she sew his collars with their intricate stitches and Julietta's glee in pulling them off and trampling them. He had always left them on her floor as a way of irritating his wife. But it had allowed her to send...what? Messages? Secrets? The enormity of their betrayal was breathtaking.
Villanova reached down and twisted the peephole shut. Another hidden device swung open a portion of the passage wall. Stepping into the hallway outside of Julietta's room, he brushed the dust off his shoulders and opened the door to Julietta's room. Leaving the secret passage open, he stepped inside the familiar chambers.
The two woman froze. Valentina still wore her black gown and veil while Julietta had dressed in a tight fitting shirt and trousers. It was designed to distract more than conceal. Behind them several open bags were stuffed with clothing and jewelry. His angry eye took them both in but before he could say a word, Valentina pulled out a dagger and leapt toward Julietta with a shout. She drew back her arm to strike down the courtesan, but hesitated when she saw that he had made no move to stop her. Villanova's voice was filled with cold disdain as he said, "Go ahead, Valentina. Kill her if you must. That would save me the trouble." His wife stood unmoving, caught in his gaze until Julietta plucked the dagger from her hand. He continued, "I know all about the two of you and your little plans. Escaping together, how droll. How long do you think a courtesan and a murdering fate witch can last out there? You killed your own sons, Valentina, who will stand by one such as you? Julietta knows better. A life of luxury or a very short life on the run? It's a simple choice, really. Though she will need to make amends to me for her traitorous plans first." He strode forward confidently and raised his sword to strike down his wife who shrank as he approached her.
Before the blow could fall, Julietta sprang at him and slashed Valentina's small dagger across his face from forehead to chin. Villanova screamed in pain as the blade sliced the eye from his socket. Julietta reared back for another attack, but Villanova raised his own blade up in a defensive posture even as his right hand clutched at his bleeding face. His longer blade kept her at bay for a minute of desperate swordplay. Valentina yelled, "There's no time for this. We must flee!" Already they could hear the sound of guards running down the hallway. The two desperate women grabbed the bags and dashed into the hallway. As Villanova tried to follow them, he felt the room spin around him and he collapsed to the floor.
His pain was pushed aside as the hot passion of hatred flooded his soul. They had betrayed him and played him for a fool! As consciousness faded he was comforted by the thought of how good it would feel to hunt them down and take his revenge with the kind of exquisitely slow torture they deserved.