Read chapter Three from The Questing Sword

Chapter 3

Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library

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BLACK SMOKE lifted from the burning cottages like a pall ascending into the clean blue Lombardy sky. A dozen men, wearing steel caps and shirts of chain mail, topped by short jerkins bearing the red-swan crest of Croma, sat motionless in their high-backed saddles. They stared calmly at the burning peasant homes. Here and there between the houses, terrified pigs and geese ran back and forth aimlessly, squealing and honking madly. At the fringe of a wood, half a mile down the narrow road, a group of peasants stood watching.

A man with clear blue eyes staring out from under his open visor reined a big roan horse around and went cantering between the wagon ruts toward the watching, motionless men and women. He wore a better mail shirt than the others, over which were fitted plate armor and a velvet cyclas. A judge of armor might have detected the fact that those polished pieces had come from the Missaglia forges in Milan. His basinet was laced onto a camail, giving him the look of an iron rider.

The people shrank back as he neared them. His hand lifted in reassurance as he ran his eyes over the gaunt, half-starved men, the sullen women, the young boys. With a grim smile he noted that there were no young girls. Any who might have lived in this burning village were safely hidden now in the woods behind their parents.

“You know this crest?” he asked them, touching the red Swan on his velvet cyclas, a short surcoat that reached to his hips and was belted by a circlet of silver plates.

The women protested their ignorance, but when he cried that he wanted the truth, a man with a bald head stepped out of the crowd. His fingers were gnarled from torture: the thumbscrew or the rack, the rider guessed.

The bald man said, “It’s the swan of Croma. We’ve seen it before.”

“Two years ago,” Gion said, nodding, “when Da Carpi won back his patrimony from the Marquis of Cavareggio.” He looked down at the men. “Da Carpi wants Cavareggio now, to go with Croma.” When the men muttered sullenly, shifting restlessly, Gion laughed. “He’s a hard taskmaster, eh? Some of you know that.”

A woman called out, “My daughter he ravished before the eyes of my husband and myself. Then his men—” She began to sob, and took shelter among the others.

Gion said, “He told me to kill you all. Easy, now. Easy! I’ll do nothing of the kind. Instead—for a promise, I’ll give you gold.”

They drew away at that, for no one—least of all a condottiere captain—gave people gold these days. Not for anything honest, that is. Their faces filled with stark fear, making Gion chuckle. His hand fumbled at a leather sack with its drawstrings looped tightly about the tall saddle-horn

“Let’s see. Ten families. Twenty ducats. A fair exchange for your burned cottages and dead livestock, eh?” His hand tossed the golden coins through the air. The men and women scrabbled in the dust, biting them with black, broken teeth. When the gold was safe in their fists and purses, they came a little closer.

Gion grinned down at them. A few of the men smiled back. He said, “Any of you know the road to Lodi? Two of you? Good. Now, this is what I want you to do.

“You’re all supposed to be dead. You know that, don’t you? I’m a farmer’s boy myself, and I can’t see killing helpless people. But if I don’t kill you and you turn up around Croma or Cavareggio alive and kicking, it’s my own neck may stretch for my leniency.”

The men and women began to laugh, but they were still nervous and looked at one another as if they doubted the sanity of this fine young officer. Gion began to speak again, laughing lightly. “So we must dispose of you without killing you. And since none of us are wizards, you’ll have to go where I tell you.”

“Where’s that, young sir?” a woman cried.

“To Castle Monterosso. There’ll be a girl and a boy and an old man named Piero waiting there for you. Tell them Gion sent you.”

“Gion,” said a man, nodding thoughtfully.

“Remember, now! If anybody asks you—you’re dead!”

They howled with laughter. One or two of the mothers went off into the woods after their daughters. The farmers drew together, watching the soldier on the roan horse trot back to his command. As one man, the riders in the reds wan jerkins followed him down the winding road toward Cavareggio.

The Marchioness Imperia del Infessura paced back and forth in her palazzo, her swishing velvet skirt making a faint sound in the otherwise silent room. She wore a rich dogalina of light-blue velvet, tight to her slim waist and with a square, low neckline and sleeves that bared her shoulders. The blue gown made her very white face and very black hair seem more youthful than they were.

Twice her palm struck the bronze finials of an armillary before she could trust her tongue to speech. “Mother of devils! What’s the madman up to? Six border villages burned to the ground. A hundred or more of my people either killed or taken into slavery by that monster! He’ll sell them in Venice for overseas delivery, or I’m not the Marchioness of Cavareggio! And make himself a pretty penny, too. Il Diàvolo!

Her seneschal, a thin man who had served her husband before her, bowed philosophically. His white hair was wispy, and there was a permanently sorrowful expression on his parchment-lined face. In his hands he held a scroll with which he nervously kept tapping his fingertips.

“If the marchioness will permit? Cavareggio itself may be next. These border raidings, surely they are only the preliminary?”

Dio di sopra! Here? He’ll attack me here? Would he dare, knowing my dead husband had alliances in Venice?”

“Da Carpi is well thought of in Milan, Madonna.”

She wheeled from a massive ambry of solid oak, where she had taken a stand, chin up, eyes bright. Fear showed in her face. The old seneschal thought, It’s too bad, really, that she never got married again after the marquis died two years ago. A woman like this needs a husband, someone on whom she can lean. An attractive female, too. A man might do worse. She was speaking again. Old Tomasino let his thoughts slide away into attentiveness to her wishes.

“Can we hire soldiers? Is there—”

The seneschal shrugged. “Croma stripped us bare, Your Highness. All our gold, your jewels, the fine armor your husband and his father before him collected: Da Carpi took them all. The villagers do what they can. We ship out food and woolen stuffs to Venice to Andrea Barbarigo, but—well, we have a little, but not nearly enough.”

Imperia del Infessura beat her tiny white fist on the bronze armillary until her skin broke and bled. She was near to tears. Until this moment she had been happy enough in the palazzo. Giosaia had been good to her in his way. When he had died in the palazzo courtyard, she had mourned him dutifully and made peace with Lotario da Carpi, giving up Croma to his gonfalons. Now for the first time she realized just how much she did miss her husband.

Her mind went around and around, seeking escape routes from her problem. Confused and afraid and feeling very helpless, she tightened her white hand on a bound volume that lay on a long table.

While its mistress was in this mood, Bartolommeo Colleoni entered Cavareggio.

He came with horses pacing slowly, ring-bits and petrels jingling musically. The tall lances of his command were like a small forest along the wide road that wound from Cavareggio westward as far as Pavia. Behind the mounted lances walked the hired bowmen from Genoa, the Swiss pike-men, and a small detachment of English archers. Trundling in the rear were the baggage wagons and small-wheeled carriages holding long brass cannons. His gonfalons, bearing the Colleoni crest, fluttered high above the horses. Sunlight winked on polished breastplates.

To the people behind the walls of Cavareggio, the array looked as Hannibal’s army had looked to their ancestors sixteen hundred years before. Terrified men ran this way and that in the streets, snatching up their families, paying good gold for passage out of the city in carts and hay wagons. Bells began to toll in the cathedral.

A trembling servant brought the news to the marchioness.

“So soon?” she whispered, and made the sign of the cross. When the seneschal asked for orders, she smiled in sickly fashion. “Go to the condottiere who commands this force at our gates for orders, Tomasino. I have none. I go to pray for my people.”

While she was descending the stone stair into the palazzo courtyard, another servant ran to meet her. “Good news, Highness. Good news! This is no attacking force but a group of friendly soldiers. Their captain wants to speak with you.”

Signora del Infessura pressed a hand against an ample bosom, as if by that action she might still the sudden, lively beat of her heart. “To speak with me? About what, Samuele?”

The servant did not know, and so the marchioness retraced her steps to the room she had so recently quitted. Before entering its wide doorway, she took refuge in an antechamber to study her reflection in a wall mirror. Her fingertips touched the artful set of her black hair, and lowered the collar of her dogalina so that more of the vale between her breasts might show. A woman never knew when her femininity might prove useful.

Tilting her head, she studied her oval face. The lips are full and wide, and the nose aquiline, she thought. A little aristocratic, true, but straight and well formed. The chin was dimpled and the cheeks firm and smooth. For all her thirty-odd years, the marchioness agreed with the glass before her. She was still an attractive woman.

She moved out of the antechamber and down the hall.

The man who waited in the library was clad all in armor except for his head, which was bare. He wore mail sollerets on his feet, with thigh guards, knee pieces, and greaves of polished steel on his long, powerful legs. A molded cuirass with gorget, over which was fitted a tight velvet cyclas with a girdle of silver squares, and arm-plates made him seem almost a man of metal. Above the armor his face looked young and, in a craggy way, rather handsome. His sandy hair was cropped close to his skull.

The marchioness thought his eyes a trifle deep set, but that might be from the fatigue of a long ride. His lower lip protruded slightly, as though he were habitually pensive. All in all, he was a bit of a surprise.

He bowed courteously, saying, “Forgive me, Signora. I have been informed that my good intentions have been completely misunderstood. I apologize for any feeling of insecurity my soldiers may have caused.”

Imperia del Infessura felt somewhat giddy. Her laughter was almost shrill. “Indeed, Captain, the fright you gave me is outbalanced only by your present chivalry. Few condottieri would pay me a visit just to say they were sorry for scaring the wits from my poor head.”

Bartolommeo Colleoni smiled. His hand gestured her to a high-backed cathedra. As she sank into it with a grateful sigh, he clanked across the room to tower in front of her. Her eyes saw that he had put aside the long Ferrara sword, which rested now across the tabletop, its balled pommel and braided handle protruding from an ornately scrolled scabbard.

“Madonna, permit me to remark that you are in grave danger. As I rode toward Lodi, I passed a number of your peasantry fleeing for their lives. They told me they had been raided by Lotario da Carpi, Marquis of Croma.”

Bitterly she cried, “He’s been raiding my lands for the past week! He burns and loots what little my people possess. My seneschal informs me he may march next on Cavareggio itself!”

He inclined his head. “A consummation of plan I pray never materializes. It is why I am here in your palazzo now.”

The Marchioness Imperia looked down at her white hands, which twisted a linen kerchief. A little red tongue came out to moisten her full lips. “If I were a wealthy woman, Captain—“

His upraised hand startled her, but no more than the laughter that burst suddenly from his throat. “Forgive my crudity, Your Highness. I did not mean to say that my lances were for hire. No! Permit me to offer them to your present need at my own expense.”

The marchioness was speechless. She leaned her head against the cathedra back and gaped at him. At first she thought, Am I still so beautiful that he should be enamored? But she soon dismissed that idea. He was younger than she, and handsome enough to win himself some lovely young thing at the mere beck of a finger. Still, a touch of resentment at her lost years insisted on making her entertain a tiny spark of pride.

“To offer them, Captain? To me? Or Cavareggio? Without hope of a reward?”

Colleoni bowed. He was no longer the Gion of Monterosso, but the condottiere, grim and warlike, serious and alert. He owed it to his youth that enough of Gion came through his blue eyes to the dark woman before him to make her heart flutter senselessly.

“The reward I shall reap from Croma, before I restore it to the horse-head banner of Cavareggio,” he told her quietly.

She pondered that, studying his features. He was even more good-looking close up like this, she decided, and wondered at his age. Aloud she said, “It is a miracle of St. James! I cannot believe it. Reassure me, Captain, that what you say is truth.”

His outstretched hand invited her to fill it with her own. He bowed and kissed her faintly perfumed fingers. Forgotten sensations raced through the marchioness at that contact of his lips. She had not felt so young or so giddy since before her marriage to Giosaia del Infessura.

“Are you reassured, Madonna?” he asked, moving closer. “Or should I—”

“No, no,” she murmured hastily, rising with a side-wise twist to avoid the arm he appeared to hook at her middle. “It was perfect reassurance, Captain!” She grew aware that her white bosom must be storming upward in the brocade bodice that was cut so fashionably low.

Imperia del Infessura told herself that she was a bold hussy not to be ashamed of this display of emotion. Instead, a naughty little hope that he found her skin smooth and her figure supple moved in her heart. So that he would not consider himself rudely dismissed, she came a step closer and put a hand on his mailed arm.

“I am not a fortress, Captain. You are all over metal, and terribly frightening to a—to a woman who lives a lonely life.” Her smile was bright and slightly flirtatious. Her black eyes whispered, Perhaps later, my captain, and in a more proper setting, you may reassure me in whatever manner you think fitting. As if he could read her mind, her captain kissed her fingers again.

Then suddenly, his mood changed, as the storm clouds change when the blustery gale comes whistling down out of the Swiss Alps. He drew away from her, and stood in front of a bifoil window, staring blindly down into the courtyard below.

“You do not recognize me, then, Madonna?”

Her face showed bewilderment. Coldness touched her shoulder blades, and she shivered. “No. No, I don’t think so. Have I ever seen you before, Captain? Captain—?”

“Colleoni, Madonna. Bartolommeo Colleoni,” he said harshly. He watched her face closely, and as her eyes widened, he announced, “Ah! Now I see recognition dawn.”

“You served with Lotario da Carpi! It was you who—?”

His hand invited her eyes to the window. “In that very courtyard, Your Highness, I came to receive your husband’s surrender. Believe me, I had no knowledge that the Marquis of Croma would lose his temper with your husband and run a dagger into him!”

She closed her eyes and swayed a little. After all the foolish little hopes I had, I must listen to this revelation! Bitterness swelled inside her. To her surprise she heard the reflection of that bitterness in his next words.

“My lord of Croma also ran a dagger into me, two days after your husband died! Only the dagger he thrust into me was not a metal one!” He told her a little of the agreement he had had with Lotario da Carpi, and how the marquis had not only refused to pay the sums contracted but had gone so far as to defame him and name him traitor to Filippo Maria Visconti in Milan.

“He claimed his murder of your husband was the result of a trap to lure him, Da Carpi, to destruction. He claimed I sided with Giosaia del Infessura against him. That our meeting to discuss terms of surrender was a plan to slay him and put an end to his hope of winning Croma for his marquisate.”

He shrugged. “What man can argue with a Visconti of Milan, except a Doge of Venice? I was forced to flee for my life and take refuge as a captain of lances under the Paduan, Erasmo da Narni—better known to you, probably, as Gatta-melata.”

The Bergamese swung from the window to bear down on her like some colossus of metal. “We owe Lotario da Carpi something, you and I! He killed your husband. He stole my good name.” His hands gestured widely, and now he smiled. “You see, I am honest with you. If we are to be partners, you must know everything.”

“Captain, I do not think that—what I mean to say is simply—”

He shook his head at her. “You cannot refuse my offer, Signora. Even now, Da Carpi will be arming for war. War with Cavareggio, against you. You must take the field against him!”

It was impossible to refuse this metal Mars, the marchioness discovered. Each time she marshaled to her lips an argument as to why he should take his lances and get himself off to Venice or Florence, the words died away. He was so big and strong! His hand on her elbow, as he turned her and brought her to a large bronze map of Lombardy set into the stone wall of the library, made her realize how desperately lonely she was here in Cavareggio.

His fingertips traced the outlines of the marquisate of Cavareggio. “Before your husband died, Cavareggio included Gromo and Scandolara. Lotario da Carpi took them away from you. Win them back! With these two hands”—he made her look down at his big palms and long, powerful fingers—“I’ll dump their fiefs in your lap! From their revenues you can go and live on the Grand Canal in Venice and be a gran signora!

“You make it very tempting,” she whispered.

His blue eyes bored into her. “Almost as tempting as your own lovely self, Madonna!” Colleoni told himself it was time to become personal, and that no woman especially a lonely widow—wanted to keep hearing about fiefs and castles and boundary lines all day long. His fingers caught her hands impulsively, lifting them so that his mouth could press down into her soft white palms.

“Forgive a soldier who’s been overlong in camp, Marchioness! Your loveliness is like the dream of cool blue waters to a man dying of thirst!”

Her laughter was tremulous. “Captain, you astound me! I did not think you condottieri thought of anything as beautiful. Not even a woman.”

“Nor a sunset, nor the paintings of Messere Donato Donatello, nor the verses of Dante Alighieri or Francesco Petrarca?” He smiled at her. As her eyes widened, he shrugged casually. “I am not unlettered, Madonna. To be able to use a sword well does not imply that a man cannot know one end of a quill from the other.”

She shook her head as if baffled, but she was smiling and did not seem to mind that he still held her little hands clasped tightly in his. “I think you shall stay to sup with me tonight, Captain. It will give us a chance to become better acquainted. You can tell me just what you intend doing against Croma—and what other things in life you consider beautiful.”

His hand on the small of her back turned her toward the door. She leaned into his arm a little, smiling up at him. When he said softly, “To begin with the most beautiful thing of all, Marchioness, I must commence with you yourself,” she laughed, but her eyes were very bright.

ii

The city-state of Croma was one of the larger principalities in Lombardy. Given birth by a band of refugees from Ravenna during those days when Attila the Hun was ravishing northern Italy, the walled city lay on the road from Savoy that ran through Lodi and Milan and forked north to Venice and southeastward into Mantua. Its geographic location made it an important stop for mule trains laden with silks and brocades, goldware and precious stones, from the East and Venice.

Its palazzo was of stone, a monument of early Gothic architecture, possessing a slim tower of checkered black and white marble, a landmark for traveling merchants. Belonging first to the lion of St. Mark and then to the serpent of Milan, it was like a piece on a chessboard, often lost, as often reclaimed.

At the moment Croma was the proud possession of Lotario da Carpi. At the moment also, the lord of Croma was coming out of the little stone chapel of his palazzo, a scowl on his face. A tall, gaunt man, he was dark-skinned by nature and by the tanning of the sun. He took delight in bathing himself, hatless, in the sun’s rays while he rode his blood mares to hunt imported gazelles and African deer in his game preserves. His black hair was scented and curled and hung almost to his wide shoulders.

He wore his black velvet doublet, with its slashed sleeves and wide ermine collar, with an arrogant casualness. His black-and-white hose revealed muscular legs almost feminine in their shapeliness. Belted about his narrow hips was a circlet of silver plates from which was suspended a long dagger.

At the moment, Lotario da Carpi was flushed with anger.

“Of what use to murmur prayers?” he asked the priest who came at his elbow. His fist closed on the dagger hilt and brought the long blade out of its scabbard. “This is the only god that Lombardy can understand.”

The priest murmured reprovingly touch close to blasphemy, Your Grace. Prayer is—”

“Oh, I know what prayer is, Padre. I’ve had it drummed into my ears often enough. My only complaint is, why don’t other people pray, too? Why am I the only one that’s asked to whisper paternosters?”

“Other people?”

“The Marchioness of Cavareggio! Have you heard what that madwoman’s gone and done? Hired cutthroats to burn a dozen of my villages! She kills the people and for all I know—eats their bodies, for they’re never found!”.

Good Father Anselmo was shocked and said so. “Surely there must be some mistake. The marchioness is in no position to provoke you to war!”

“It’s what I thought myself until reports came to me about my villagers. Well, you can pray. I’m going to take steps to make her sorry for her stupidity!”

The Marquis of Croma stalked off down the corridor, leaving the priest behind him pursing his lips thoughtfully. A man of God, he nevertheless knew enough of the world to realize the forces that Lotario da Carpi might set in motion were he to send his lances into Cavareggio.

Venice will not look favorably upon such hostility so close to her own borders, the priest mused. Especially since Da Carpi is a cousin of the Visconti of Milan. She may take it as an opening move to expand Milanese territories.

Lotario da Carpi was well aware of this possible outcome, too, but he shrugged it off before the goad of his wounded pride. He came out into the sunlight of the large palazzo courtyard, where two men in armor waited beside a round stone well. They respectfully rose to their feet from a little wooden bench at his approach.

“Agacio, would you like to be seneschal of Cavareggio for me?” the marquis rasped from ten feet away.

Agacio da Verona was a hard-bitten soldier. He had fought years before with Facino Cane when that condottiere had served Gion Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan. Well into his fifties, he was thinking of retirement. His face brightened perceptibly.

“I’d like nothing better, My Lord. Except for the fact that Cavareggio still flies the horse-head banner and not your red swan.”

The other smiled coldly. “Win Cavareggio for me, and the seneschalship is yours, at three hundred ducats the year. And whatever else you can wring out of its merchants.”

The soldier bowed. “Not a hard task, surely. Imperia del Infessura maintains no army.” His upraised brows asked how the marquis might explain his sudden aggression to the world.

Da Carpi thrust rumpled sheets of parchment at him. “Reports on my border villages. Burned, all of them, by bravi wearing the horse-head on their jerkins!”

When the condottiere whistled, he laughed. “I was as incredulous as yourself when I read them. But they’re no lie. I had in the men who wrote them and they swore they spoke the truth.”

“The woman’s mad!”

“I’d rather see her dead.”

The soldier nodded. “An accident, of course. A musketone of those newfangled hand guns of which we have a few, thanks to Your Grace—can explode too close to her. They’re treacherous things.”

The nobleman clapped his captain on the shoulder. “Take all your lances, all your infantrymen. I want this done right.”

He turned toward the stone stair that would take him up the west wall of the palazzo. As he went he whistled cheerfully. Things were moving along very nicely for him, thanks to that madwoman, Imperia del Infessura. Now at last he had the opportunity to invade Cavareggio and strip her of her last estates and thereby add to his own. Filippo Maria Visconti could not accuse him of greed or dangerous ambition, as he had done when he had taken Croma and its dependency of Scandolara from the old marquis.

No, he would be in the clear. He would send those rumpled letters to the Duke of Milan after Agacio da Verona had taken Cavareggio for him and that madwoman was in her grave. They would explain and excuse his conduct at one and the same time.

His hand turned the bronze handle of a large wooden door, affording him entrance into an airy bedchamber with white-stuccoed walls, against which the dark walnut of the large poster bed and the massive ambry and two oak chests gleamed richly. High windows let in the morning sunlight, which fell in a golden pool on top of a big cassone that held a dozen dolls.

A blond woman, wearing only a thin wrapper over her milky skin, sat enraptured before the tiny figurines. Twice she put out her fingertips to touch the rich velvets and brocades of their little gowns. The man watching in the doorway could read the greed in her heart from those gestures. Lotario scowled.

“You’re not considering more dresses?” he rasped abruptly.

Teresa di Bordoni did not turn her head. “The mercer from Paris arrived late last night. Maria brought these up to me with breakfast. Look, Lotario—see the new-style sleeves women will be wearing!” She held up one of the dolls. “They’re puffed, and cut so as to reveal the lingerie below. And look at this one. It’s covered all over with seed pearls!”

The marquis grunted. “Is this all you can think about, this buying of clothes to adorn your body?”

The woman pouted and held the dolls out so as to gaze down upon her white flesh, visible, as if it were clad in mist, through the sheer voile of her wrapper. “It’s a pretty body, Lotario. Why shouldn’t I wish to adorn it?” Spite gleamed under her long yellow lashes. “Especially since you promised, when you talked me into marrying you, that I could have whatever I desired. A marquisate. Perhaps even the title of countess.”

She rose to her feet, tossing the fashion dolls onto the cassone. Her pout became a frown. “And speaking of titles, when are you going to become a count? Your cousin Filippo is certainly taking his time about honoring you. After all, you did win him Croma!”

“Soon, perhaps. Very soon.” He told her of the burned villages, about his orders to Agacio da Verona. “With Cavareggio to add to Croma and Scandolara, count will be the least of my titles!”

Teresa turned twice before the standing mirror of Venetian glass, the wrapper flying to reveal slim white legs and thighs. Her yellow hair came undone from its night ribbons, and tumbled wildly down her back. “The Countess Teresa of Croma and Cavareggio,” she chanted gayly, laughing. “I will be such a pretty countess, won’t I, Lotario? You will be so proud of me! I will order every one of those new gowns. Every single one!”

“God’s blood, you’ll bankrupt me!”

“Oh, pooh. Tax the people more!”

He said wryly, “Already they grumble about the monies my men collect. I can’t take any more.”

“Get the money somewhere else. From Cavareggio!”

“Imperia del Infessura is poverty stricken!”

She stared at him. “Then how does she pay ruffians to burn your villages?”

“I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.”

“She gets gold from somewhere. That’s obvious. Maybe Venice is backing her. The point is—when she needs money, it’s there. You should do the same, Lotario. I want fine things. Lots of pretty baubles and clothes. Some of this new lace everyone is talking about!”

Her hands were undoing the ribbons of her voile wrapper as she talked. Casually she held it open, staring at herself in the Venetian glass. The marquis saw a slim, white body with small, hard breasts and narrow hips. Her shamelessness was always a spur to his desire. Fully dressed and with her hair properly coiled and coiffed, she looked like one of the angels that Lorenzo Monaco painted so convincingly. Only Lotario da Carpi knew what she could be like with those garments thrown aside.

As the wrapper slid to the floor, he cried out, “Your nudity will never change my mind, Teresa.”

“Won’t it, darling?”

Her hands lifted her thick yellow hair, fluffing it outward so that it draped her smooth, white shoulders. Her green eyes teased him as she began to walk toward him. Lotario drew in his breath sharply when she caught his hands and put them on her.

“The dresses, dearest?”

Her palms cradled his cheeks, drawing his head down. Sometimes Lotario da Carpi wondered who had taught her to kiss like this and to squirm so enchantingly against him. He did not wonder too long. It was not a time for thought.

She whispered, “All twelve gowns, Lotario?”

“All twelve!” he rasped hoarsely.

Lotario da Carpi told himself that he would find a way to raise the money he needed to keep this golden plaything happy. A heavier tax. Or making Cavareggio pay in some manner. Perhaps by selling some of its peasantry to Venice, for resale as slaves to the Turks. There were merchants in the island-city who were not above closing their eyes to a human cargo on their trading vessels.

He would give the matter some thought later in the day. But not at the moment. Most assuredly not at the moment!

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