It would be more dramatic to say they came for me at midnight, or during the witching hour – those times of the night when you feel most vulnerable – but, in fact, the afternoon sun was just losing a little of its searing heat as a strong fist battered on the door to my personal chambers. I hadn’t been expecting them. Even with what I had been doing – well, we all think we’re so clever, right? We can’t imagine that anyone will see through our petty little schemes and our lies. With only two people involved you believe that a secret will stay...well, secret! If I told no one and he told no one, then the secret would remain just between us.
I digress... I was able to retain some dignity as I opened the door to my elder brother and two of his vile friends. I welcomed them in with the smile of a pampered noblewoman – the smile that has empty eyes above it, and doesn’t reveal anything of your actual feelings. In this case, my actual feelings were hate. Hate, hate, hate pounding in time with my speeded-up heartbeat. I was worried. My brother never ordinarily felt the need to visit the sister who has proved such a disappointment to him in the marriage market.
The sneer that crossed his saturnine face was familiar to me.
“Liliana,” he said, his voice dark and cold. I was able to remain silent, hiding my shaking fists in the full skirt of my dress. There has never been a time that I remember where I haven’t hated Arrigo. The darling of our Father’s eye. Eldest son and heir. Talented swordsman and capable with numbers. The list of his virtues can be recited by me as a litany, heard many times over the years from both Mother and Father. They never did learn the facets of his character that Gwido and I knew. My littler brother and I knew his jealousy, his bullying, his temper, his arrogance. Oh yes, Arrigo was well-named.
He was still waiting for my response, but I took this small victory and forced him to reveal why he came calling on me. One of his two bully-boys – rabble-rousers and heavies for his less salubrious dealings – muttered in Arrigo’s ear, words I was unable to catch.
“Sister, it is time for us to speak honestly,” said Arrigo. He walked towards me, cupped my cheek in his hand so that my skin crawled with his close presence. I ached to shrug away from him, but kept my spine straight and chin up. His voice took on a smoky drawl as he continued – the same drawl that had the numerous daughters of the Merchant Kings sighing over him. “We don’t like each other. We have never liked each other. But, at least until now, I have been forced to ensure your safety and comfort. No longer, Liliana. Your life is now forfeit to me after the shame you brought on our family.”
“Shame?” I stammer. I curse the fact that my voice started to shake, and my cheeks stained red with my fear. I knew of what Arrigo spoke about. I knew that there would be repercussions if I was ever found out. But I had always thought that it would be Father who administered the punishment. He was a frequently absent Father, but one who had a distant fondness for me, and I had relied on the fact that I could steer him towards a more lenient solution. Arrigo clearly planned to relish this opportunity.
“Indeed,” he said. We both stood for a moment in silence, still playing this game where we tried not to reveal our hands too quickly. I was always the better player, and Arrigo was clearly too pleased by the situation to stay quiet for long. “Liliana, I know the name Macario is familiar to you.”
Of course the name was familiar to me – Macario was the second son of one of the minor Grand Families; one of those that have yet to earn a family name. We carried the family name Ermeto proudly, as befitted the pre-eminent family of Merchant Kings. In truth, Macario was beneath our notice and, if my conscience had been clean, I would have been puzzled at the fact that Arrigo even knew his name.
But it was not clean. I was not puzzled. I knew Macario. I had committed the greatest crime and fallen in love.
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