The black stallion galloped hard. The thrash of Duke Amoro Dragone's crop landed solidly against the animal's haunches. Sparks flew at each rhythmic strike of horseshoes against the old Roman road. Sweat saturated the stallion's sleek coat. The creature's nostrils flared scarlet. Its breath streamed ribbons of mist into the cold air.
Amoro glanced at the bodyguards who raced to keep up. One carried his family's standard of a scarlet dragon on a black background. He urged the mount faster. His mother needed him. Genoa needed him.
Flames from thousands of torches illuminated the city of Genoa, but grief blinded him to its beauty. He navigated the narrow streets by rote and ascended steep hills into the heart of the port city. Amoro rode across the open drawbridge into the courtyard of Castle Dragone. His bodyguards close behind. He dismounted and tossed the reins to a waiting groom. The stallion panted, its head hung low. Its legs shook with exhaustion. It pained Amoro to put his horse through such effort. “Tend to him with extra attention. He has earned it.”
Without waiting for acknowledgement, Amoro sprinted up the steps of the castle. The spurs of his boots jangled as he passed through the massive oak entrance and dashed through the corridors. He advanced beneath the shadow of an arch to the entrance of the great hall. Two guardsmen snapped to attention then opened the door at his appearance.
People crowded the room. His grief-stricken mother, Caterina, stood by the bier dressed in black. His father, Duke Bartolomeo Dragone, lay in his finery. Heaps of blossoms, aromatic herbs, and pine bows surrounded him. Shock halted Amoro. The man, so active in life, looked unfamiliar in death.
“Amoro,” Caterina hurled herself into her son’s arms and wept.
“I'm sorry.” Amoro embraced his mother. Words caught in his throat. She sobbed against his chest. Amoro's heart constricted to see her so anguished. His arms still about her, he escorted her to a chair near the bed and assisted her to sit. He raised her hand and kissed it.
Caterina ran a hand down his cheek. She turned her swollen eyes to the black and red dragon standard that covered her husband's body.
The Archbishop of Genoa hovered over the body and muttered solemn prayer. His face, serious and pale, contrasted with his brilliant purple vestments. Attendants whispered and emitted muffled sobs. A peculiar chill suffused the room.
I never anticipated this.
He knew no man as a kind and well respected. His heart pounded hard in his chest. At his father's bier, Amoro dropped to his knees. In repose, the body looked waxen and cold. He touched his sire's hand and pulled the stiff fingers to his forehead in one last obeisance, one last farewell. He opened his eyes and studied his father's face. Amoro plummeted into a void of despair. The sound of his sobs suppressed all other sounds. He crossed his father's lifeless hands atop the red and black pall. Amoro let his hand linger until he regained his composure
“Did he receive last rites?” Amoro asked the Archbishop in a voice raw with emotion.
“Yes, your father shall rest in peace.”
“I am grateful.”
“It is as God wished.” The Archbishop made the sign of the cross over Amoro and looked back at Caterina. “I'll keep you both in my prayers.”
Amoro turned to his mother. “They told me he was ambushed. Is this true?”
She stared with lustreless eyes clogged by shock, unable to respond.
Amoro looked beyond her and raised his voice to the assembled vassals arrayed in mourning. “One of you, answer me. Did he face an ambush?”
Roberto, his father's commander-at-arms of his troops, stepped forward. “It is true.” His gravely voice shattered the shocked silence. Amoro clenched his jaw. “How did this happen?”
“Yesterday we returned from Savona. Your father went there to collect a debt. Brigands accosted us. They outnumbered us. One slashed your father across the belly with a broadsword. We tried to stop the bleeding and dress the wound, but he lost too much blood. He died before the sun set.” Raw anger twisted Roberto's face.
Amoro swallowed hard. “And what of the man who felled him?”
“Dead by my own sword,” Roberto growled. His countenance turned grim, yet his eyes glimmered with satisfaction at the redress.
Amoro stepped closer, placed his arm around Roberto's shoulder, and led him away from his mother, so she could not overhear.
Amoro lowered his voice. “Did you know the man?”
Roberto shrugged. “No.” His looked turned venomous. “I ordered the body drawn and quartered. The bastard's head is impaled in the square.”
Amoro closed his eyes. Sangue di Dio. Roberto should have interrogated the man to discover the motive behind the murder. Nonetheless, Roberto defended his father, and for that, he owed the man his gratitude.
“You have been ever faithful to my father and our family. I'm proud to call you a friend. I shall see you well rewarded.”
“My lord,” Roberto said, his eyes gentled by compassion. “The night before he died, your father spoke with me.”
“Of what did you speak?”
“Of many things, but mostly of you.”
“Me?” The extent of Amoro's loss churned at his gut.
Roberto nodded. “We camped outside Varezze. The inn had no vacancy. The men drank too much wine and fell asleep early. Your father couldn't sleep, so he woke me. He seemed preoccupied. He confided in me.” Roberto faltered. Lines of concentration deepened along his brows.
It shocked Amoro to see the brawny man yield to his pain.
“Continue, Roberto, please,” Amoro urged.
“Your father wearied of the feud between your family and the Monterossa.”
Amoro's drew his brows together. “I weary of it. We all weary of it. Father rued the day his own father dishonoured the betrothal with a daughter of the Monterossa family. The wrath of their vengeance denies us any peace.” He paused as something occurred to him. “Do you suppose one of the Monterossa murdered my father?”
Roberto's mouth dipped into a deep frown. He shook his head. “We have no proof it is the Monterossa. We removed the disguise from the face of the lout we killed. None of us recognized him. Your father's men search from town to town to find the rest of the band. We may never learn the identities of the assassins.”
Anger replaced Amoro's grief. Try as he might, he failed to keep it contained. “I swear to hunt down the bastards who did this. They will suffer a worse fate.” Anxiety roughened Amoro's voice. “What else did my father say?”
“He placed all his hopes onto you. He wanted you to end the feud and atone for the past.”
“You must honour the marriage contract broken so many years past.”
“How am I to do that?”
“You are to wed Contessa Morena Monterossa of Portovenere.”
“Marry the daughter of our enemy,” Amoro grimaced. With eyes closed, he shook his head. “Father never spoke of such a thing to me.”
“Nevertheless, that is what he said.”
Amoro stared hard at Roberto. Thoughts of Laria, his lover, came to mind. His father knew he wanted to marry for love. He asked the impossible. He returned to his mother. “Did you know of Father's wish for me to marry a Monterossa?”
Caterina nodded. Her voice cracked with emotion. “He spoke of it to me a while ago. He wanted to end the feud and for you to strengthen the Dragone family with sons. He sent a messenger to the king to propose the match and to acquire his permission.” Caterina pulled a small scroll from the pocket of her over-tunic and handed it to Amoro. “The king sanctioned the match.”
A tense silence enveloped the room as he read the document and handed it back to his mother. Hands clasped behind his back, it took Amoro only a few strides to reach his father's side. He glared down at the lifeless face then looked away. He pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head. What could have possessed his sire to burden him with such a fate – to wed the enemy, someone not of his own choice? A woman he could never love.
He clenched the edge of the pall with his fists and raised it to his face. Raging emotions shook his body. To wed a woman sight unseen? What if she behaved as a shrew or bore an ill temper? If Umberto Monterossa refused? How could he honour his father's request then?
He swung around and stared first at Roberto then at his mother. “The idea of wedding the daughter of our vilest enemy is absurd. I do not believe my father would force this upon me.”
Caterina rose from her chair and rested her hand upon his arm. “Amoro, if that is the woman your father wanted you to marry then doubt him not. No man was more astute at judging the character of men and women than your father. Besides, we have all heard talk of her virtuous nature and beauty. Don't turn away from an opportunity to wed a well–dowered woman.”
Amoro returned to his father. He held his breath. Thoughts in his mind spun like a whirlwind. “Morena,” he tested the name. A torrent of emotions churned in his gut. To wed the enemy, a woman he didn't know. His father doomed him by such a ludicrous demand. His father's favourite proverb haunted him. Figlio mio, one day you must rise to your station. Do your duty and the balance will take care of itself. By the bowels of hell, what had his sire demanded of him?
Amoro looked down over Genoa and onward past the port. He watched as the wind blew over the sea and twisted the surface into thousands of broken ripples. Anchored barges rocked against rising tides. The blustery weather whipped through the cypress trees.
“Even in such weather, Genoa is beautiful,” said Laria Malacresta as she enfolded her arms around his waist and pressed her head against his back. “I have missed you these past few days. I didn't think your journey to the marches would take so long.” When he didn't reply, she sighed and murmured, “I regret the loss of your father. I know you loved him well.”
At her touch, he lifted her arms away and faced her. Lush ginger curls dangled about her beguiling face. Mischievous blue eyes sparkled above a delicate nose. Amoro studied the face of the woman who warmed his bed and had captured his heart these past months.
The memory of when they first met two summers ago flooded him. He and his men rode through a forest. They discovered her. Naked, beaten, and bloody, someone had left her for dead, like refuse. He carried her to Castle Dragone and summoned a healer. She lost the child she carried.
A bond developed between them during the weeks she convalesced. He learned she was a noblewoman. Her second cousin was a wealthy count who died childless. Trouble befell her when she became infatuated with the unscrupulous son of a rich merchant who impregnated her. Her family cast her out in shame. In desperation, she turned to her lover who spurned her and denied the child.
Her circumstances gave rise to a profound need within Amoro. Before long, he surrendered to his desire for her. What a temptress. Her carnal appetite matched his. They indulged in each other's flesh, often, the most pleasurable hours in his life.
As his father's heir apparent, Amoro understood that he must wed to increase his family's wealth or political standing. A marriage to Laria could never be. Not because she lacked noble blood, but because she could not enhance his family's political standing. He pondered about keeping her as a mistress, but mistresses brought discord between a man and his wife and he yearned for contentment in wedded life.
He didn't expect the day of their parting to arrive so soon. The worst of it would be to see her face crumble at the news that he must send her away. Amoro swallowed and fixed his gaze upon hers. “Si, I loved and respected him well. My father will be missed by many.”
“Time heals, Amoro. No one knows that more than I.”
“My life from this day forward will change.”
She caressed his cheek with her hand. “You are your father's heir, Genoa's Grand Duke now. Of course it will be different.”
Amoro turned to face the sea. Laria came to stand at his side. They stood in silence for a few moments.
“Laria, there is something we must discuss.” Amoro turned to face her.
Laria forced a smile. “Tell me, amore. There is nothing we cannot say to each other.”
“I must marry.” It broke his heart to see hope come to life in her eyes. He knew she loved him and secretly hoped to become his wife, but her ruination prevented such a union. How he hated to hurt her. He inhaled a deep breath. “Before my father died, he made it known he wanted me to marry Contessa Morena of Portovenere. I leave in two days to honour his wish.”
Laria paled. She furrowed her brows and tilted her head. Tears filled her eyes.
“Laria, I...” Amoro reached out to her.
She raised her arm to stop him and turned away.
Amoro waited, unable to ease her hurt. Moments passed. He watched as she squared her shoulders and raised her head. She faced him. He noticed ruddiness in her cheeks and bitterness in her eyes. Pain etched her expression.
“Laria, I'll see to it you are well cared for. You will want for nothing.”
Laria's face contorted. “You believe I want your money!” Her voice grew shrill. “It is you I want. I believed that you overlooked my lack of chastity. A union between us would have restored my respectability. These past months you took your pleasure and now you discard me? I believed you to be different from other men, but I erred. You are no better than those who preyed on me then left me for dead.”
“I don't have a choice, Laria. I never made you any promises.”
“No, you didn't. Even so, I hoped that you loved me enough that when you became Duke you would discard convention, make your own decisions, or break whatever protocol to do what is right.” Laria hurled the words at him with fury. She drew a breath and paused. Her chest heaved with emotion. “I blundered in harbouring such thoughts.”
“I understand how this must hurt you.”
“Hurt? You know nothing about hurt.”
“Try to understand. I cannot disregard my father's last wish. I loved him.”
“And I love you. If you presume to rid yourself of me that easily, you are wrong. Seek this woman, but remember this – we belong together, and if I must fight to keep what is mine, then so be it.” Laria picked up her skirts and fled the palisade.
Two days later, in the crypt of his ancestors, Amoro stood alone at the foot of his father's tomb. He placed his hand on the cold marble and clutched the hilt of his sword to his heart. Since his father's death, he barely left his mother's side. After he placed his mother in the care of life-long servants and kin, he bid her farewell and promised a swift return.
He envied the love between his parents. Never did they speak an acrimonious word between them. Kindness and respect ruled their time together. Laughter filled the air when they strolled in the evening together. His father always advised him to wed for love. It confused him that his father changed his mind. To ask him to live without love? Could love bloom in the cold heart of an enemy? If a Monterossa murdered his father, could he wed into that family? Could he use the alliance to seek his revenge?
The time for grief passed. The time for action arrived.
“I pledge my oath upon your grave, Father. I swear to avenge your death and fulfill your final wish to end the feud with the Monterossa.” The words seared his heart. “I will marry Morena Monterossa.”
The rasp of his sword as it glided into the scabbard broke the silence. After a final sweep of his hand over the crypt, Amoro strode away.
His bodyguards waited outside. Amoro took the reins from Roberto and leapt onto his horse. Roberto shouted a command for the cavalcade to ride.
Amoro galloped away, entourage in tow, a cloud of dust in their wake. The horses of his cavalry wore black and scarlet blankets with ornaments of silver that dangled. Every item of his wardrobe and that of his bodyguards, from the black silk tunic to the luxurious scarlet cape trimmed in gold leaf, sparkled with jewels.
Villagers stopped all activities and lined the road to view the spectacle. Children scrambled into the street to collect any silver ornaments that fell. They thundered down roads and through meadows.
Fragments of doubt about the Monterossa woman swirled like a maelstrom in his mind. Could he stand firm to the oath he just foreswore, if unfair of face, or if plagued with a physical ailment? He must, because he valued his word as much as his life.
For years, he avoided his father's requests to marry and beget a son. When his mother paraded maiden after noble maiden before him, he paid scant attention. Perhaps he might have discovered on as his true love.
Fate doomed him to wed the daughter of the enemy. He must defeat his prideful arrogance and do his duty. Amoro rode into Portovenere under the afternoon sun. Crowds of people lined the streets to watch the spectacle of their arrival. Cobblestones disappeared and the road withered into dirt with boulders strewn on either side. The road ended at the edge of a very large hill. Another road to the right led down to Bloodstone Castle.
Amoro halted the men and studied the Monterossa family's castle. An azure sea sparkled like a brilliant gemstone in the background.
Amoro admired the architecture. Poised on the tip of a peninsula of rock, the structure soared above a landscape of breathtaking beauty. The Ligurian Sea surrounded the castle on three sides. He admired the fact that no enemy could arrive by sea unnoticed. The fortress stood sentinel over the sheltered harbour, for centuries.
Amoro understood why so many legends abounded about the ancient stronghold. The rose-colored edifice sat upon land and rocks richly veined with bloodstone. Rumours of a Roman casket filled with unimaginable treasures buried somewhere beneath its turrets and walls, intrigued Amoro most of all. He collected ancient Roman jewellery. To discover it, would be an additional benefit to wedding.
He appreciated the sweeping vistas of snug wood and stone houses with terraced gardens, abundant orchards, and three small islands in the nearby waters. A cool mist blanketed the fortress in an amethyst haze. The evening sun descended over tides and white-foamed waves. Clouds streamed across the sky.
Amoro ordered the white standard of peace unfurled. He led his men over a bridge to the gatehouse. Two large towers sat at each end. The roof of a large keep hovered behind, higher than the walls.
They rode into the barbican and stopped before the locked gates. Loud shouts and the urgent blow of a trumpet sounded from within.
“Who goes there?” The voice came from somewhere above.
“Amoro, Duke of Genoa,” he shouted back and looked upwards. The afternoon sun blazed in his eyes. He could not make out who spoke. “I come in peace to speak with Umberto Monterossa.”
The sounds of men scurrying into place emanated from inside. Amoro shielded his eyes against the sun and looked up at the bastions. The hot sun beat down hard as he waited.
The voice shouted down at him again. “Umberto Monterossa refuses to see you.”
Amoro clenched his reins tighter and shouted. “Then I'll wait.”
A heavy silence fell. Amoro held his ground as if he commanded each moment. The lack of response convinced him they scrambled to find another method to rid themselves of his presence. Amoro could not prevent the grin that touched his lips as he called out, “Advise Contessa Morena I seek an audience.”
“The Contessa is indisposed and cannot see you.”
Amoro ignored the snickers from behind the castle walls. The corner of his mouth twisted. “Inform the Count and his daughter I shall return on the morrow, and every day thereafter, until one or the other speaks with me.”
Amoro clenched his jaw and reined his horse around. Entourage in tow, he departed.
Amoro returned the next day with a small wooden casket bejewelled with coral and pearls. Secreted within was a parchment upon which he wrote some kind, persuasive words. An intaglio brooch of multi-coloured rock set in a golden shield bordered with twisted gold and engraved with two Roman goddesses lay upon the document. It was the most exquisite piece in his collection of ancient Roman jewels. He purchased it from a shrewd Venetian merchant after much negotiation and cost.
Before he announced his presence, a voice shouted down.
“Contessa Morena will not see you today.”
Amoro recognized the voice as the same one as the day before. He gritted his teeth and inhaled a hearty breath. “I brought her a gift.”
“Leave it outside the gate. I'll take it to her.”
“Think you I'm a fool?” Amoro shouted upwards. “I wager she will not see it. No, I'll tarry for her personal response.”
The castle gate creaked open. An unpleasant looking man with a surly face and fat cheeks walked out and halted two paces in front of Amoro. The man drew in a breath to speak.
Amoro waved him to silence. “I'll not tolerate any further stalling. See to it that you place this into the hands of the Contessa. I await her answer.”
The man sneered.
Amoro's eyes narrowed as he passed the man the casket. He held it longer than necessary before he released it. He fixed his eyes on the man's back as he lumbered back to the castle and the gates slammed shut behind him.
Amoro waited. An eternity passed before the gates creaked open and the same man strode out. In a hardened voice with no vestige of sympathy, the man shoved the casket back at him. “The Contessa refused your gift.” His eyes shifted when he spoke as if he guarded a secret.
Amoro lifted the lid of the casket to examine the contents. All appeared intact. He raised his eyebrows and suppressed angry words. He cast a venomous glare at the man and held the man's gaze. When the man could no longer bear it, he looked away.
Satisfied, Amoro leapt onto his horse and cantered off.
Amoro dispatched a parade of messengers to Bloodstone Castle. Each bore extravagant gifts: pearl necklaces, bracelets of fine Saxon silver, a lock of Saint Peter's hair, a Psalter illuminated with inks of purple and gold, a velvet mantle lined with ermine, and numerous gemmed garments of silk. Each gift carried a well-crafted note that proposed marriage and described his desire of peace. Each endowment returned to his hands unopened.
He took residence at a nearby inn. The innkeeper and his wife treated him well. They befriended and encouraged him. The couple practically salivated over the many gifts he sent to Morena and shook their heads at each refusal.
Word of Amoro's benevolence spread. The villagers took notice. Their wariness towards him faded. Each day, townsfolk gathered in greater numbers to watch his liveried messengers depart for the castle with new, extravagant gifts. They took great interest at his campaigns to win the heart of their Contessa.
If only they knew the truth. Let them think him a forlorn romantic for it mattered naught.
A fortnight passed. Amoro made no progress. He sat alone at a corner table in a crowded, raucous inn, and brooded. He finished a meal of roasted venison and fresh bread and downed his second goblet of red wine.
A man approached.
Amoro stared at him with deliberate sternness. In no mood for trouble, he poised his hand on the sheathed dagger on his thigh.
The tall, muscular stranger with fair hair and brown eyes gazed back at him. “May I sit?”
Amoro looked around the room. “I see several unoccupied chairs. Take one of them.” He returned a dark gaze to the goblet in his hand in dismissal.
“I believe you will be interested in what I have to say.”
Amoro glared at him.
The man did not waver.
The display of confidence impressed Amoro. He studied the man's face to judge his trustworthiness. “Say what you have come to say, then be gone.”
“I know of your intentions to wed the lady Morena.”
“Hah. That is no secret.” Amoro raised his goblet to toast the comment. He downed a swallow and looked away to dismiss the man again.
“I can help you.”
Amoro twirled the stem of his goblet. He leaned back into his chair. “How?”
The man grinned. “My reasons are my own, but suffice it to say that I would rather see the Lady Morena marry you than that scoundrel, Ernesto of Savona, to whom she is betrothed.”
“A betrothal document exists already, made many years before.”
“Then why do you wish for the lady to marry me?” Amoro leaned forward. Perhaps something this man knew might release him from the trap of marriage that hung over his head.
The man stopped a serving-maid who walked past with a tankard and two empty goblets. “I'll take one of those.”
He grabbed one of the cups and held it out for her to fill. He raised the glass to her and returned his attention to Amoro. “I owe Umberto Monterossa a great debt. As a lone child, after the murder of my parents, he took care of me as if I were his son.” With every word, pain showed in the man's face.
“And you want to discharge your debt by seeing the lady wed to me?”
“If she marries Boccanera, she will suffer.”
The man captured his full attention. Amoro gestured with his arm to the empty chair across the table. “Who are you?”
The man grinned as he straddled the chair and leaned forward. He looked to either side to ensure no one could overhear. “My name is Massimo Baronno. I'm a close friend of the Monterossa family. I know of a secret door into Bloodstone Castle.”
The Complete Tour Schedule – http://virtualblogtour.blogspot.com/2008/05/mirella-patzer-virtual-book-tour.htmlDuring the tour, we encourage people to visit each tour stop shown on the schedule. Each comment on any of the tour stops is an entry in the book giveaway. Several copies of Bloodstone Castle will be given away at the end of the month. One will be given to the “best” comment, one for the “most unique and relevant” question. In addition, the blog host where the winning comments were posted will also win a copy of the book. So, visit Mirella, learn more about Bloodstone Castle and post comments. Mirella looks forward to getting to know her readers.