Are you an “open a potential book and read a few pages before I decide to buy” kind of person? I get it. And I know I write in lots of different genres, so you might not be sure you want to follow me into this one. But I love this series and hope you will too!!! Take a peek…(And sorry about the weird paragraph indents/not indents. My web creator doesn’t like Word document imports and I can’t get them out!)
A few facts to know before you join me on this adventure…
In the fourth century, church officials came together in Constantinople and agreed on common doctrine and works of the Holy Canon—those works deemed legitimate and worthy of being included in the Bible we know today. As had become custom, many books were reviewed and then set aside, due to questionable authorship or potential heresy. Heretical teachings were discussed and condemned.
Despite the fact that Saint Paul references earlier and other letters sent to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 5:9; 1 Cor. 5:11; 2 Cor. 10:11-11), no biblical historian has ever seen these work(s) and no further record or reference has been found to date. But they clearly existed.
In the eighth century, the Iconoclast movement gained momentum and ultimate power in the Eastern Church. Iconoclasts were vehemently against any graven images, including illumination—the ancient art of illustrating, gilding, and beautifying the Holy Scriptures along the margin and sometimes in the midst of the text. Some illuminists claimed to be divinely inspired, often adding illustrations that could be interpreted by only them. Others claimed they were prophetic.
Thousands of books and manuscripts representing centuries of work were burned in the eighth century, and illuminists who refused to turn away from their craft were put to death. In Italy, the Western Church clung to the belief that icons were holy and blessed, something to be exalted rather than eradicated. Many illuminists made their way to Italy and beyond in that era to escape persecution or demolition of their works.
Join me in the eighth century now…
The Year of Our Lord 731
“This way, Your Grace,” whispered a monk ahead of him, gesturing toward a dim room, riddled with afternoon shadows.
Bishop Claudiopolis Thomas turned the corner and paused a moment in the doorway of the tiny scriptorium, sensing everyone hesitating around him, neatly echoing the hesitation he felt inside. The room had but one long work table by the window, meant for six priests to pursue their divine labor, but holding only one volume, chained to the wall. Of late, finding educated monks with a steady hand had been a hard task. Given Thomas’s calling, mayhap that was for the best. Was it not why he had been called here?
Before him, laid out on a table, with dusty streams of dusk light streaming onto its pages, was the script.
The bishop willed his feet to move forward, but dread rushed through him like an inner robe slipping over his shoulders and down to his feet. What was this task before him? What evil laid in his midst?
Hiding a hard swallow behind a cough, he lifted his chin and placed one slippered foot before him. Monks moved to either side like the Red Sea before Moses. They were nothing, these men in drab black robes that sought nothing of significance for themselves or their Lord. Mice, really. Rodents, feeding upon a molding cheese of the devil. If it weren’t for men like himself, watching out for the children of God, they would all be swept away to Hades.
Reaching the lambskin-covered manuscript, he nodded to his assistant. Taking a fabric-tipped stick from his robes, the plebe opened the cover of the book and turned to the first page. Touching it with his fingers would surely mean eternal damnation. The plebe carefully averted his eyes, looking not to the page, but to his master for guidance.
The bishop stared at the first page with hard eyes, praying for the will to withstand its siren call to admire, appreciate, draw him in. For you, Lord Jesus! he cried silently. For You alone, must I do this task! Traveling the length of his emperor’s territory, searching out the heretical works alongside the other Iconoclasts, was becoming a burden almost too great to bear. He had burned paintings and ordered sculptures destroyed. Like golden calves in the temple. Asherah poles on the hill. Now he had been called to seek out the illuminated manuscripts and cleanse the Word of God from graven images. Given his age, this was likely his final task, his final endeavor.
He nodded, directing the plebe to turn another page. His knees and trembling hands threatened to betray him. Even a godly master like himself could feel the devil’s temptation drawing him in, with all the rich color and imagery. Could they all not sense it? The weak pope, Gregory III, had led them down this path. Taught them to venerate the icons instead of cast them away. This script must be destroyed, along with its creator! The bishop looked up and searched for the one who refused to recant. What choice did that leave him?
“Who is responsible for this?” he asked.
“Your Grace,” said an aging, balding priest, lifting ink-stained fingers in supplication and taking a tentative step forward. “I never allowed the evil one to enter these hallowed halls. My work—my work was meant as an act of worship. My paintings were divinely inspired. Does not the Holy Father bless us seeking the mystical? Does he—”
The bishop held up a hand, not able to bear another word. “With strict oversight. Did you seek the counsel of your abbot?”
The man’s eyes darted to the abbot, then down to the floor.
“I thought not.” Thomas sniffed, lifted his chin and stared hard at the man, and at the pubescent, dark-haired boy to his side, slightly behind the monk. A student in training, perhaps? The heresy already grew tentacles.
He returned his eyes to the book, nodding toward the plebe. “Go to another section, please.” The book was a complete Bible script, encompassing five or more years of work in a scriptorium. If only there had not been images, the careful, perfect writing could have been preserved for other students of Christ. But the artist had blasphemed the Holy, created work that could not have been divinely inspired—unless it was for the dark lord and not his own.
Licking his lips, Thomas nodded once more. The plebe turned to yet another section, and Thomas sucked in his breath. He fought off a wave of dizziness, tried to clear his throat to speak.
The abbot rushed to his side. “Your Grace! Are you all right?”
Thomas could do nothing but stare at the Latin words at the top of the page, then cast a savage glance at the man in charge of the scriptorium. “You are the one responsible for this foul text,” he gritted out, “and these illustrations unfolding beneath your very nose?”
The abbot, sweating now, stared down at what the bishop was reading. Slowly, he lifted his hand to his mouth and whispered, “Deus, misereátur.” God, have mercy. “There must be some mistake.”
“I can explain,” said the priest behind them.
The bishop, never turning, raised both hands this time, fingers splayed. “We will not hear further words from a heretic. There is no way you can explain including an uncanonized letter in the Holy Writ.”
The bishop dared to lean closer and read a few more lines. The cardinal would wish to know about this. Specifics.
A letter of a man masquerading as Paul, to the Corinthians, but not the first or second holy letters. A strange letter with haunting, prophetic words. The bishop swallowed hard. He could not allow himself to be sucked in. He mustn’t read heresy. The lies had a way of entering one’s head and feeding upon a man’s thoughts until it became truth. Abyssus abyssum invocat…Abyssus abyssum invocat! Hell calls to hell!
He glanced at the plebe, hoping the boy did not see the sweat upon his upper lip. Thomas refused to brush it off. “A bit more, please. I must know the breadth of heresy contained here.”
Along the margin of a perfectly lettered page, was a gilt-enhanced painting of a woman, dark hair curling in lush tendrils along her neck, finger teasing at the nape, and the olive-shaped eyes of a seductress.
“Goddess worship!” the bishop spat, grabbing the stick and slamming the bedamned book shut. If it hadn’t been chained to the wall, he would have rushed it immediately to the fires himself. “What madness has been allowed within these walls?” he thundered.
The abbot shrank away as the bishop whirled towards his guards. Several black-robed monks scurried out of the room, leaving only the guilty one. Thomas whipped his head toward the abbot. “Bring me the key at once! We must make haste and burn this treachery and its creator today! Satan has made his way into this hallowed home, brother. Today, we shall burn him out!”
The offending monk fell to his knees before the bishop, lifting his hands, palms up. “I beg of you to understand, if you will give me but a moment to—”
“Recant at once and make this boy understand the error of your ways,” hissed Thomas.
The monk paused. “I cannot. This is not heresy. ‘Twas where my Savior led me—to include this sacred text, then use my gifts to show the world—”
“I cannot,” he said, clasping his arthritic hands before him. “I cannot turn away from what I know to be right and true. Do you not see? It took me an entire year to illuminate that particular letter!” he said, pointing to the book. “I stayed to the task solely because of a divine calling.”
“Divine?” Thomas spat out. “Divinely dark, mayhap.”
“Your lordship, if you will only—”
“You and your wretched work shall burn,” Thomas said slowly, sorrowfully. He looked about to the brothers who congregated outside in the hallway. “And quickly, before anyone else is swayed by the evil one’s seduction.”
The bishop turned back to the priest, squaring his shoulders, even daring to lift his chin in quiet defiance. The boy had wrapped his arms around the man’s shoulders, looking up at Thomas with a mix of fear and fury.
The bishop took a deep breath. “Brother, you were fooled by the shadowed one into believing that you worked for our own holy cause,” he hissed. “I give you one last opportunity, for the sake of the innocent at your side. Recant now. You must pay the price this day, but it need not be an eternal damnation.”
He could see the fear that made the balding man pale. But then the monk grew even more resolute. Slowly, he rose up from his knees to stand before his master.
What audacity! In the face of mortal judgment? In all of the bishop’s years of carrying out the emperor’s edict to destroy all icons, this was the first he’d encountered such brazen disregard.
“It was foreseen,” the monk said simply. “I was foolish to try to avoid it. Do what you will, Your Holiness. There is more at stake than my life. I give it freely, for the sake of the Master and all who follow him.”
“Which master?” the bishop asked, leaning forward, wanting to tear open the man’s head and heart to see the darkness that must be slowly rotting him inside. “Who gave you this so-called vision? These words? Permission to include it along with the Holy Writ?”
“The Lord Jesus Christ and none other,” the man said.
The bishop leaned back and slapped the man hard across the face, sending him reeling to the stone floor. “Blasphemy!” he whispered. “Blasphemy! You are no longer entitled to even utter the name of our Lord in the presence of other holy men. You are one of the vitandi now, excommunicated from the Holy Church, never to be reclaimed. And you shall burn at the stake tonight, along with that wretched book! May you be condemned to hell and may the Holy Church be saved from parasites such as you.”
He wheeled then, his fine robes cascading around him like a dancer’s skirts. Over his shoulder, he said to the abbot, “Lock him in this room until nightfall. Let him stare at the bare space that once held his precious book; let him contemplate his downfall. Do not grant him last rites. He is no longer your brother. He is Satan in your midst.”
The bishop paused at the door, waiting until everyone filed past him, staring at the monk and his dark-haired student.
“Please, sir, may I stay with him?
“Nay, child. Come with me. You must not stay in his presence a minute longer.”
“But a word, Your Grace,” the child said in the high, thin voice. “But a moment to say my farewell.” His deep brown eyes pleaded with them. They were the eyes of an innocent. Eyes of a soul that could yet be saved. But he would need to feel an affinity to Thomas if the bishop were to win him back to the light.
“But a moment,” he said wearily. “I must speak in private with the abbot and then I shall return for you.” He eyed his two men nearest the door. “Lock them in and do not leave this hallway until I return.”
The boy looked to his master, the man he had assisted in the task of illuminating the letter this past year. He was not an instrument of the devil; he was not. The boy himself, though young, had witnessed the Holy Spirit in this very room, felt the warmth of the Presence, the brush of angel wings as the monk carefully inscribed the words or illuminated the page.
Hastily, he helped the old man to a bench at the edge of the room, and as he did so, the elderly monk fished a slender knife from the folds of his robes and offered it to the boy.
“Oh, my young friend, this was foreseen,” the monk whispered, trying to smile as the boy took it. “We have spoken of this day. I will die but our cause shall not. There are others who will follow. You will be led to God’s chosen ones.” As he spoke, he caressed the boy’s cheeks, like a father about to be separated from his son. He wiped away the boy’s tears even as his own threatened to blind him. “Find your way to Roma and seek out my friend—he will guide your steps. Just as surely as God has guided my hand, the Lord will guide you too. Do not fear. It is imperative, child, that our work on the letter is not lost. Do you understand?”
The child nodded, wiping his nose.
“Good. Now, go! Cut it out, quickly! Before he returns!”
The boy rushed over to the manuscript and turned to the letter, the letter that had brought the Holy One into this very room. He winced as he cut, frustrated that there was no time to properly slice the leather bonds and free the letter from the folds. He had just slid the pages under his robes and shut the cover for the last time when the abbot and bishop returned.
“Get away from that foul tool, boy!” the bishop shouted.
The boy backed away in haste, hiding the knife among the folds of his robe. The abbot rushed to the wall and with trembling hands unlocked the chain that had safeguarded the book for years. Worth a year’s wages, illuminated manuscripts were known to disappear, even from the center of a monastery, thus making locks necessary.
“Bring the boy,” the bishop said, gesturing from his guards to the child.
But the monk’s eyes held his as he was whisked away. “God is with you, my child. Never forget it. Always and forever, no matter what happens, he is with you.”
Unable to form any words through his tears, the boy simply nodded. The bishop placed a large hand on his shoulder, as if in comfort, but it only felt heavy upon him.
Hours later, he watched as his master was tied to a stake and a great fire was set. Tears he thought spent rose in his eyes, yet he refused to look away as the flames licked upward, as the heat made him retreat, step by step.
The bishop threw his master’s life’s work—the book, carefully wrapped in a burlap sack—into the fire at the priest’s feet. The burlap swiftly burned and curled, revealing the lambskin cover of the priceless book. It too began to burn.
The priest glanced over at the boy, a quiet question in his eyes.
The boy patted his shirt in response, reassuring his master, feeling the sacred pages next to his skin.
Go, child. Go! The boy shook his head in confusion; he could hear the priest, even though the old man’s parched lips moved not.
The boy glanced over at the bishop, his face and grand robe dancing eerily in the heat waves between them. The bishop’s eyes narrowed, and he beckoned to the boy.
Run! Run, child!
Looking at his master one last time, the boy turned and fled into the night.
The Year of Our Lord 1339
In his six years as a knight of the Church, they had burned at the stake scores of sinners. As each died, Gianni de Capezzana could never determine whether any were any less of a saint than he.
This one was different. So different.
The Sorcerer was said to be the seducer of women, beguiler of men. And in his darkest moments, murderer of children. And somehow, the numbers of those that followed him continued to grow.
Sword in hand, his eyes scanned back and forth, briefly settling upon more loculi, the skeletons shelved like books in a giant’s serpentine library. The Romans had burned their dead. It had been the Greeks who had insisted on coffins and death crates, and the Christians who adopted the cheap burial grounds. The cardinal had spoken of this place, having seen early Church documents. But the abandoned catacombs had long been lost to the overgrown hills of Roma. Never did Gianni believe he would be within them! Whatever happens to me today, Lord God, do what you wish with my bones. Only bring me into your holy presence. I serve you, and you alone.
As they plunged deeper into the cold, dank catacombs—rumored to be used as a secret meeting place—Gianni was determined to locate and swiftly put this adversary to death. To drown the Sorcerer’s chilling power in the heat of sanctifying flame. He glanced backward, over his shoulder, to make sure his men were with him. As they passed, they filled and lit occasional oil lamps among the loculi. They felt it too, then. The hairs on the back of Gianni’s neck rose. Light would not make this sort of cold recede. Only a blade to the heart.
“Leave it,” he whispered. “Come!” The lamps did little to dispel the dark shadows from the passageway of the ancient catacombs before them, and now was not the time for torches. Surprise was their principal ally in approaching the group ahead. They would simply have to risk not having a clear path back to the surface.
Cold sweat rolled down his neck and down between his shoulder blades. The death hallways were cool enough to ease the heat of his armor, but fear—a feeling rare for him—made him hot as fever. It is only the foolish stories of the villagers, he told himself, as if mentoring a squire. He forced himself to take another step, and then another, knowing if he stopped, he’d turn around and retreat.
It was dread. Different from the dread of battle—this fear filled his mind and soul. This was why he had been called to the Church, to do battle with evil, to hunt it down before it hunted the weak. But this—this threatened to overcome him. Over and over again he fought down the urge to turn and run. “Nobiscum, Domine,” he whispered. Be with us, Lord. “Give us strength, Father.” He clenched his teeth and slowed, hearing something ahead. Send your angels, God.
His breath caught as Aeneas, his most trusted knight, appeared in the doorway ahead. With swift hand signals, he let his captain know that their enemy was directly ahead, and waited for him to take the lead.
Gianni fought the urge to set into a run, hoping for a surprise attack. After passing through a long, curving tunnel, he slowed. Flickering light told him there was a torch and a wider cavern ahead. He raised his hand to slow his company of knights and their noise made him wince. Footfalls on stone. The creak of leather. The scrape of metal against stone. There was no element of surprise possible, he belatedly realized. The stone caverns went on for miles, and carried sound just as far. Surely their approach was known by now, and if so, they were too late. “Charge!” he cried, in motion before the word fully left his lips, hearing his men follow after a moment’s hesitation. They roared together, a great cacophony meant to send an enemy to quaking.
His company of twenty-four filled a large room, lit by one torch in the center, and stopped in stunned silence. The stone altar…the lifeless child…the blood…
A knight behind him turned, gagged, then began to quietly retch.
Gianni raised his torch higher and slowly walked forward. He swallowed hard, then forced himself to touch the pooling blood. It was fresh. This travesty had happened within the hour. He looked up and around the room, noting tunnels that led away, each equally cold, silent, still. “Horror ubique animos, simul ipsa silentia terrent,” he whispered, quoting Virgil. Everywhere horror seizes the soul, and the very silence is dreadful.
He drew a hand over his face, forcing himself not to get lost in the fear. He must think! Their enemy was not far gone. He raised his torch again. “You men, light your torches. We must see what is before us.”
Aeneas and the others lit their torches and the walls of the cavernous hall came alive with light. One man behind him gasped. Another fell to his knees.
Gianni lifted his torch higher, perusing the frescoes, reading the ancient Latin. If you are searching for them, here lies united a host of the Blessed. The venerable sepulchers enclose their bodies, but the royal palace of Heaven has carried…Here lie the companions of Sixtus…
Aeneas was reading alongside him. “Not Pope Sixtus?”
Gianni looked about the room again and shook his head with grim fury. It was an ancient papal crypt. Six sarcophagi lined the room! His enemy had dared to do such evil here! Here, in the lost crypt of popes!
“Captain,” said a knight with a tremulous voice behind him.
Gianni turned. The knight stood in the center of the room, looking at the blood, pooled on the ground and atop the stone altar. It was then that Gianni saw it. It was not an altar, but another sarcophagus, ornately carved on the outside.
“They sacrificed him, right here, atop the pope’s grave!” cried the knight, backing away.
What kind of man committed such sacrilegious acts? What kind of man dared to defile the final resting place of one of God’s own?
“The boy’s blood was put to good use, knight.”
Gianni whirled at the sound of the strange voice, and found the dim outline of a man at the mouth of one passageway, cold defiance radiating from him.
“You shall face the wrath of God!” Gianni cried, raising his sword and advancing.
“Captain!” Aeneas cried, catching his elbow. “To whom do you speak?”
Gianni glanced around in confusion. “There! Ahead!” But when his eyes went back to where he’d seen the man, he noted five different passageways bleeding off the larger hall, and all lay empty. He swallowed the foul words that leapt to mind. “Did you not see him? Hear him?”
His fellow knight shook his head, brows furrowed in concern and fear.
“The Sorcerer! He spoke to me!”
“They cannot see me,” the Sorcerer whispered in Gianni’s right ear, and the knight whirled again, nearly nicking several of the closest men with his blade. They cried out, on alert with their leader, swords at the ready, but clearly confused by his actions.
“Captain,” Aeneas said urgently, drawing near his left as was their habit, eyes scanning with him. “Are you certain?”
“I am. He is here,” Gianni said through gritted teeth, turning slowly, willing his eyes to pierce the darkness and discover his adversary again.
“I was here,” whispered the voice in his ear, “but am no longer. You are too late.”
Father Piero knew from the moment he first glimpsed her in the garden, even before he saw her guard with the family herald—a peacock as her family crest. But he would have known her instantly, even without it. After thirty years of traveling far and wide to preach the Gospel of Christ, always keeping an eye out for her, the lady had at last appeared.
Piero forced his eyes from her and walked to the wall, pretending to gaze out upon the city. But his thoughts were cascading back in time, to when he was a young man, a student. And to his teacher.
His teacher had once taken him on a journey, far into the hills beyond Roma’s ancient walls. In the ruins of a small village, they made their way to the center. Out of respect for his master, Piero bit back his many questions, obediently following where he led.
The old man cast him a secretive glance and then entered an ancient Byzantine church, recognizable only by fragments of mosaic that likely covered the entire floor centuries before. Once, there might have been a ceiling, resplendent with gilt mosaics, or marble columns. But none of that remained. Only crumbling stone and mortar.
The teacher motioned him forward, to a side chapel with tall walls that remained largely unbroken. When he realized what he was seeing, Piero fell to his knees and then lowered his forehead to the ground, strewn with square mosaic tiles.
A moment later, the teacher’s hand rested on his shoulder. “Sai dove siamo?” Do you know where we are?
“Surely this is the chapel of a saint.”
“Indubbiamente,” he said. Undoubtedly. “Although whose, I have never been able to ascertain. Please, my son. Rise.”
Piero drew upright, but remained on his knees, looking around in awe. There were biblical scenes in fresco on the walls, as light and lively as if they had been painted but a week prior. There were Mark and Luke, John and Matthew. Jesus in numerous settings.
Piero glimpsed the teacher nodding and looked fully to him. “’Tis marvelous, is it not? There are many rooms in our lands such as this one, where the faithful met and worshipped, but this room is especially important to you.”
“To you.” With some effort, he got down on his knees in front of Piero and brought his satchel closer. “I have searched for you for many years, my son. Your appearance told me it has at last begun.”
“What? What has begun?”
The teacher smiled and held up one finger. “Tell me what you see about us, among the frescoes.”
Piero glanced up again. “Christ, teaching beside the Galilee. Jesus again, as a boy, with the teachers in Jerusalem. There again, at the Last Supper.”
“Yes. And who is that?” he said, pointing in the direction of a woman’s figure. Behind her was a tall male slave. The beautiful, oval-faced woman was standing over a child, one hand on the child’s head, an herbal branch in her other hand. A healer?
“I know not. A saint? One of the mothers of the Church?”
“Hmm. Possibly. Who is she reaching toward?”
Piero’s eyes ran down the length of the woman’s elegant arm, past the herb that seemed to be pointing to the next figure. “A man, on a road. A friar, by the color of his robe.”
Piero rose and drew closer to the painting and then took a step back, startled. He cast a tentative smile to the teacher. “It…it seems to resemble my grandfather.”
But his teacher did not smile back. “And down the road, the road our brother travels? Who do you see?”
“A knight. Roman, by the cut of his tunic.”
“Do you see anything that ties these three figures together?”
Piero looked from one to the next. “A peacock. At each of their feet. Or a feather in their hand.”
His mentor said nothing more about the frescoes, simply bent and unrolled a leather envelope that he had pulled from his satchel. With arthritic hands, he untied the old leather bands. Piero grew wary, suddenly certain his master was about to share something terrible. Something terribly wonderful, but mayhap too large for any ordinary young man to take in. Trepidation stole his breath.
“Come closer, my son. It is time you know of our divine secret.”
The divine secret.
And finally, after all these years, he was no longer to share it alone. She was here!
It had taken the itinerant preacher weeks to approach her. Again and again, he questioned the leading of the Holy One, wondering if it was merely her likeness—and her servant’s—to the ancient script and what he remembered of the crumbling church’s frescoes. Was it only years of searching that made him assume she was the one? Desperation to find her finally pushing him to the breaking point? And yet she had come to the convent—the very convent to which he had been sent to preach to the sisters—as if led to him.
She felt it too. The holy draw between them. He was sure of it. With each day that passed, it grew, like a buzzing in his ear. Did it in hers too? Surely ‘twas not merely his shaved head and the unusual presence of a man in the convent that repeatedly drew her eye, as well as her guardian’s.
And yet he could not find an excuse to approach her. With thirty attentive nuns about, he had to have a reason.
Walking outside with the prioress one day, speaking to her of Saint Dominic, he saw the young woman working in the garden, cultivating herbs, weeding. “Sister, who is that woman over there?”
The senior nun glanced over to the woman and then back to the path before them. “Lady Daria d’Angelo, Father, a noblewoman seeking to abide with us for a time.”
“She carries much sorrow in her shoulders, eyes.”
“’Tis her broken heart,” piped up a nun on the other side of the prioress. “They say a handsome one broke it, as well as their handfast.”
The elderly nun frowned at the girl and shook her head. “Sister, I have told you again and again. You must learn to hold your tongue from gossip or you will never amount to anything as a woman of God.”
Cowed, the girl stepped back and followed the two of them in silence. He’d witnessed the young nun get chastised inside for whispering when silence was the rule. Apparently, Sister Giovanna Maria had been told she must stick to the prioress’s side until she tamed her tongue.
“To whom was she handfasted?” Piero asked gently.
“Lord Marco Adimari de Siena,” Sister Giovanna Maria supplied helpfully. The prioress gave her another hard look over her shoulder.
“Perdonare io, Madre,” the chastened girl whispered, ducking her head. Forgive me, Mother.
Siena. It made sense. He had known he was to go to Siena, felt the pull of it many times. He had not known when. Handfasting was a folly of the wealthy, a practice slyly sanctioned by the Church in response to a generous donation. It allowed a couple a year to see if they were compatible, but more importantly, determine if their union would bear fruit. If a woman became pregnant, the couple hurriedly married. If she did not…well, Lady Daria was not the first heartbroken noblewoman—or man—Piero had encountered.
“She is a fine and beautiful woman. What reason would Adimari have to break their handfast?”
“She proved barren,” confirmed the prioress sadly. “Both families are in desperate need of an heir. Though they were fond of one another, they had no choice but to part. She came to Roma on pilgrimage, hoping to find solace in the holy sites and direction for her life.”
“And has she?” He gazed across the garden to the woman.
The prioress drew them to a halt and glanced up at him, curiosity alive in her eyes. “Why such interest in our guest, Father?”
“Has she found solace?” he asked again gently.
“To a certain extent. She spends hours in the chapel and here, in the garden. Each afternoon, she allows her falcon to hunt.”
“How long does she intend to remain within these walls?”
“I know not,” she said with a shake of her head. “She refuses to speak of leaving, but she must go soon. Though just a woman, she is responsible for her family’s businesses. If she fails to do so, distant cousins will step in.”
“She has told you of this?”
“Nay. Her guardian in Siena, Vincenzo del Buco, sent me word a week past. And I must confess, her African makes many of the sisters ill at ease, with his silent, solitary ways, hovering over her. They whisper of their desires for him to depart. I do my best to hush them but—”
“I would imagine that nuns would be first to find comfort in others who abide in silence, as they themselves are to do among the cloister. Or mayhap they should have become Benedictine rather than Dominican nuns.” He tossed the younger nun a grin, even as his eyes moved to find the man they spoke of, standing in the shadows of the cypress beyond the lady, feet akimbo, arms crossed. He stared directly at Piero. But in his dark eyes was not wariness, but rather recognition. Quiet, steady, assured recognition.
His heart skipped a beat. So like the image in his mind of the frescoes, standing with the woman. It was unbelievable, really. All that was missing was a peacock at each of their feet! He caught himself looking down the road, half-searching for a Roman knight. And yet Daria d’Angelo would not be the only beautiful, wealthy woman in the land to have a slave. “Is the man her slave?”
“Freed slave. They were raised together, practically. He reads and writes as well as the lady. With no tongue, most assume he is dumb and frequently treat him as if he were deaf as well. But I can assure you he is neither.”
Father Piero had briefly greeted and observed the man these past weeks, always standing erect and alert at the edge of Daria’s location, missing nothing. More than once they had shared a long glance at each other, as if each sized up the other. But nothing like today. Today the man looked at him as if he knew he would soon approach his mistress. “You managed to learn a great deal about a man with no tongue.”
“Yes,” the prioress said, glancing guiltily back at Sister Giovanna Maria behind them. Likely learned via chatter or gossip, no doubt, for which she had taken the younger woman to task. They walked for a bit in silence.
“He hardly appears to be a threat to our sisters here,” Piero said. “His manner is more guardian than predator.”
“Yes, yes, ’tis as if he almost hopes to shield Lady Daria from any harm again.”
“You said she has business to attend to in Siena. What business?”
The prioress paused for a moment, clearly thrown by his singular and obvious interest, let alone such extended conversation. For the two years since he had been preaching among the streets of Roma, periodically utilizing the nunnery’s stables as his bed, their discussion had centered mostly on the needs of those in neighboring villages, or about theological matters. Heresy. Visitors had been largely ignored.
“The d’Angelos have served in leadership in the woolen guild for over a century, and she also does a significant trade in herbs, spices. Even more in inks and parchment.”
Piero threw her a quick glance. “She supplies Siena’s illuminists?”
Piero laughed under his breath. “And herbs? Spices, you said?”
“Herbs, spices, medicinals, yes.”
Piero shook his head and laughed, ignoring the prioress’s consternation. “She has no male kin?”
“No one but Baron del Buco—he treats her as a niece, of sorts. And as a member of the Mercanzia, ’tis he who leads her in matters of the guild. ’Tis because of him that our lady has been able to hold on to her interests, even from afar.” “I see,” Piero mused, moving away from the woman to a point at the wall, where he could look out over the city. He spread his arms and leaned, letting his eyes scan the city’s buildings and towers, even as he longed to go and speak to her directly.
But he could not. ‘Twould be unseemly. But then how, Lord? When?
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