Elisabeth felt her body tremble with its own grief as Olivia sobbed in her arms. The mother’s loud screams had echoed down the narrow hall of the servants’ quarters until it reached Elisabeth in the kitchens. She had found Olivia on her narrow bed, clutching her baby as its head lolled perversely to one side. She did not ask what had happened. She didn’t need to, all Elisabeth did was close the door and embrace the poor chambermaid as she mourned the only family she had left.
This tragedy didn’t belong just to Olivia. It was also Elisabeth’s. Now she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt the true nature of her eldest son, Piero. The heir to the Porlezza seat was evil, capable of murder and cruelty with a coldness that chilled her heart. The woman in her arms screamed and shook as Elisabeth wept. She stared at the white washed wall of the spotless little room, hoping for answers. She didn’t know what to do. She only knew that she had to act quickly, before this monster could gain the power to do greater harm.
Elisabeth forced herself to recount all the misfortunes she could trace to her son. There was the wet nurse who mysteriously fell down the main stairway after she had spanked him for running off. He was four. Then there were all the dead barn cats, once they found two kittens floating in a pail of milk. When Piero was nine, a messenger from her family back in England had spoken dismissively to him, and had mysteriously stepped on an open wolf trap in the stable when mounting his horse. Piero insisted he had seen one of the grooms do it; the same one who had driven him off when he caught him beating one of the hunting dogs. The dog died anyway, and the groom was beaten and dismissed. Back then, Elisabeth had believed him.
Some time after that, Piero took a particular interest in his younger brother, Davide. At first she had been delighted to see the boys playing together, but then mysterious bruises and welts started appearing on the younger boy’s body, and his eyes started to show fear when he saw his brother instead of adoration. When their tutor caught Piero sitting on Davide, hitting him and taunting him, he had beaten the older boy and locked him in his room. After that, Elisabeth made sure Davide and her two younger children were kept away from Piero as much as possible. But when chickens started disappearing, Piero managed to find one in the tutor’s room, and the man was sent away with only one of his hands.
It was after the arrival of Piero’s third tutor—the one who’d brought that infernal book of Machiavelli—that his interest in Olivia emerged. Elisabeth had hired her on the recommendation of the head cook, who happened to be Olivia’s great aunt. She was fifteen and had just married the local smith; and she was easily the best chambermaid Elisabeth ever had. They went through their pregnancies and early motherhood together.
As Piero became a young man, Olivia’s aunt grew too frail to do more than tend the kitchen fires. Then Olivia had her second miscarriage. Her one son was working in the smithy, and though she wouldn’t admit it, it was clear she was lonely. She showered attention on Piero, who was a handsome and charming boy. Piero started bringing her little gifts and trailing after her. Even after several pregnancies, Olivia was very beautiful.
When they needed to hire a gardener, Olivia recommended her youngest brother, who lived with her family several miles away. She was overjoyed when he arrived, and spent all her spare time showing him around and laughing and joking. But not much time had passed when someone started vandalizing the garden: herbs and fruit trees hacked at, beds trampled through. Olivia’s cousin was an obvious suspect. When Elisabeth’s husband, Battiste, went to question the boy, he found two rabbits—poached from the grounds. The boy was sent home. Elisabeth questioned Piero and he admitted to the damage in the garden, but insisted he’d only done it to draw attention to the poaching, and quoted that horrid Prince to justify himself.
But it didn’t end there. When Olivia became too involved in her great aunt’s care, Piero talked Batiste into sending her to be cared for by relatives. When Olivia became pregnant again, he ‘accidentally’ knocked her down a flight of steps. He was terrified the miscarriage would kill her, it was the only moment of remorse Elisabeth had ever witnessed.
When Olivia started spending more time at home with her family, Piero talked her only son into joining the latest Crusade into the Holy Land. Five years later, he has yet to return. Then Olivia’s husband had died of a natural illness shortly after Olivia became pregnant. It was the first baby she’d carried to term in seventeen years, and was probably her last.
Battiste did not realize how his son tried to use him. He was a benevolent man, full of compassion and deeply interested in furthering the fortunes of all of Porlezza, qualities that had made it easy for Elisabeth to love him. Unfortunately, his very goodness blinded him to the violence in his son. Piero usually claimed innocence of his crimes, but Elisabeth had caught him so many times about to act that she was only more horrified at the indifference with which he denied the horrors. Yet, she could not tell Batiste; he would not believe her, and if she did manage to convince him now in his old age, she knew it would break him.
Nevertheless, she had put it off too long. Piero had started to look at his father in the same way he had looked at the messenger, the tutor, Olivia’s brother, and all the others he’d decided were enemies. Elisabeth didn’t think he was willing to wait too much longer to succeed her husband.
The Olivia’s sobs had begun to subside. Elisabeth knew what she would want. Gently, she raised the woman up to face her and held her lightly by the shoulders. Olivia hung her head down, as if tempted to resist her mistress.
“Olivia, look at me.” No response. “Look at me, Olivia.” The woman raised her head. Her dark eyes were red and puffy, but rage had already caught fire behind them. She stared in silent accusation at Elisabeth, but that was to be expected.
“You want justice, and you shall have it Olivia, I promise you.”
The servant sneered. “I don’t believe you.”
“I need you to believe me. Olivia, you and I arrived here almost at the same time. We’ve known one another for twenty years. I swear I will avenge your child.”
Olivia’s eyes drifted back to the cold little body in her arms. “Do you expect me to believe you would betray your own son—your first born, for a… servant’s brat?” She whispered.
“Yes.” Her head snapped up again and the rage in her eyes struck Elisabeth like a blow.
“Why? Why should I believe you?”
“Because I love Porlezza, and I love…. the people here who’ve embraced me.” Olivia looked at her doubtfully, but Elisabeth continued on. “Do you not agree that Batiste has ruled well?”
Olivia hesitated, then nodded reluctantly.
“Haven’t you heard me say again and again how proud and grateful I feel to be married to such a good and wise man? Who runs his lands with his people instead of on their backs. Has he not brought great prosperity to everyone?”
“Do you really think I would let anyone ruin that?” Olivia blinked, startled. It had not occurred to her that her mistress would care for anyone other than her own family. It was rare among the nobility, Elisabeth knew, but it was something she had learned from long experience.
Elisabeth had grown up the youngest daughter of a minor lord in northern England. Not as wealthy as many of their peers, they could not afford to employ stewards to manage the estates. Thus, the Lord managed the production of the estate, and the Lady managed the household; and their children had assisted and been trained to do the same.
Her parents had been too busy finding advantageous matches for her older siblings to put much thought into hers; there had even been talk of her staying to assist her mother as she got older. The proposal from Batiste had come as a blessed surprise.
Though Batiste did employ a steward to help him run Porlezza, he wanted a lady who would take an active role. So, he brought Elisabeth to Italy. Unlike her sister, who was brought up learning the language and customs of the land of her betrothed, Elisabeth had arrived at the castle unable to speak a word of Italian, and knowing nothing of the food, herbs or traditions of the place. The servants had taught her everything with patience and humility. The grace of these people, and the patience of her husband, had always filled her with gratitude.
What many in the noble classes forgot was that their fortune was built on service not just to their own family but the estates they ruled. Their names faded with their fortunes, or were sullied by the memories of foolish and unnecessary cruelty. Piero would destroy everyone and everything Elisabeth loved.
“Olivia,” she said, “Take your child to the priest. Tell him we will cover the expenses for the funeral. But I beg you, do not destroy a good man’s name for the sake of vengeance. I promise you, the murderer will do no more harm.” Olivia opened her mouth to speak, but Elisabeth cut her off, “I swear by all that’s holy, I swear by the Blood of Christ. I swear on Batiste’s life, I will do it.”
Olivia stared at her for a long time. Her eyes no longer accused her, but examined her as if for the first time.
“He is your son.”
“I have other sons. Better sons. Do you think they or I are any safer than you?” With that, Elisabeth walked out of the little room, down the hall into the kitchen, and out into the gardens.
Dinner that night was osso buco with polenta and a casserole of radicchio and chicory. Elisabeth dipped her bread in oil and vinegar and ate quietly as she watched Batiste explain to his sons the way to gauge the timing of the harvest. Her daughter gossiped with her lady’s maid at the end of the table. Davide and the youngest boy, Franco, listened attentively to their father, occasionally asking questions. Other noblemen would be irritated at the impertinence of being interrupted, but Batiste loved teaching and delighted in the interest his sons displayed. But Piero looked bored and glared silently at his father. Elisabeth knew this hurt Batiste, but he always excused it by saying that Piero had already learned all this, and didn’t need the teaching his brothers did. Elisabeth knew better, she could see the calculation behind Piero’s eyes.
“Lisabette,” Batiste turned to her, “Tell the boys how much wheat Porlezza needs this year.”
“Let’s see, twenty eight for the household, a bushel for each of the tenants and another for the priest… so one hundred and seventy-three.”
“How do you know that?” Davide asked, a little awed.
“Never mind,” Piero snapped, “It is the work of women and servants.”
“Piero…” Batiste began, shocked at his son’s rudeness.
“No, dear,” Elisabeth demurred, “He is correct, though few ladies learn to keep household books anymore, and it is easy to be cheated if you cannot check the books yourself.” She looked at Davide, who was listening with worried intensity. Math was not his best subject.
“Not if they know what’s good for them,” Piero growled. The kitchen maids filed in to replace the dinner dishes with glasses of liquors and a plate of sweets. Elisabeth took a breath.
“That reminds me, Piero. The new case of nocino hasn’t arrived yet, and there’s hardly any left in the last bottle. Would you like to save it and have a glass of limone with the rest of us?”
Piero hated the estate liquors, which he considered crude and provincial. He insisted they import the sticky brown nocino for him, and threw a tantrum if anyone else touched it.
“No thank you, mother.” He answered without looking at her. He took the drink as it was placed before him and sipped, sitting back from the table, as if to distance himself from her further.
She tried not to watch him, tried not to cry. She had come back that morning with the purple bell-like flowers she’d brought with her from her England. They were so pretty; they had comforted her those first few years when she was homesick. Her mother said that herb women used it to treat heart trouble, but one had to be careful or it would stop a person’s heart completely. She had let the crushed flowers steep in the liquor all day.
She glanced up. Piero was so handsome, with perfect skin and large dark eyes. His shoulders were broad and his hands were fine. He took a final sip before standing up and excusing himself.
“Wait!” She was on her feet before she could stop herself. Piero turned in the door and looked at her. She couldn’t bear it; she crossed the room and reached up with one hand to caress his perfect cheek. “Such a handsome young man you’ve become Piero,” she said as she choked back a sob, “Do you know how much I love you?”
Piero sighed with exasperation. “Of course, I do Mother. Don’t be so sentimental.” And with a quick peck on the cheek he was gone.
She turned back to look at her remaining family. As always with Piero’s absence, the conversation was growing livelier. Davide was teasing his sister, and her retort made Batiste roar with laughter.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED