A Countess Betrayed – Jade Alters

1 PROLOGUE RAVENNA 897 “Ten twenty-two,” the bespectacled man spoke with a swift glance at his pocket watch. “Dead”. Doctor Renoulleau dropped Santino’s thick, pulseless arm. Thud. It fell with as much finality as an axe in Ravenna’s stunned mind. A small flock of neighbors and friends gasped at the news. She searched the doctor’s gaze behind the reflection of his glasses. “Dead?” Her lips felt heavy and numb, as if even such a simple word was acrobat’s work for the muscles in her mouth. Renoulleau’s nod was curt and firm. “Dead.” Bubbling spasms climbed up her throat like a maniacal urge to laugh. She couldn’t laugh. What if the doctor realizes I’m the one who killed Santino? Yet for the life of her, Ravenna couldn’t summon the wits to play the part of the grief-stricken widow. Dead. For seven years he ruled her life with a gambling hand and an iron fist.

And just like that… Santino let go. Those meathooks of his are pretty useless right now, she noted with grim lucidity. His loose palm hung limply. Powerless. Gone. Not Ravenna’s. Her fingers tingled with something different altogether, a sense of mightiness that permeated her every vein. I did this, she told herself with something that was between awe and horror. Her gaze dropped to the shards of porcelain scattered around Santino’s lifeless body like arrows pointing to her offense. Tan colored dots peppered the crime scene in an almost whimsical fashion. Utterly, thoroughly ludicrous. A crackpot story if she ever heard one. And yet Ravenna’s mind strayed back to the chain of minuscule moments which had brought about that earth-shaking hour of ten twenty-two. Three hours before, Ravenna could be found head deep inside her pantry. Isn’t there even a little flour left? She stretched a bit farther, only to bang her skull.

Empty, she mentally groaned as she massaged the ache away. Empty, apart from one lousy jar of fava beans. Ravenna snorted. Visions of a sunbathed kitchen came flooding to her, back in the sienna and turquoise part of the world where she came from. Her mother would always stash away a bean or two in the bottom of her cupboard. Like many other superstitious people in their Sicilian village, she firmly believed that fava beans kept empty pantries at bay. What would Mama think, Ravenna asked herself bitterly, if she knew fava beans are the only reason my closet isn’t empty right now? While she waited for the water to boil, her gaze strayed to the jar containing the last edible item in their home. When she was a young girl in Sicily, there were women who followed the Vecchia Religione, the “old religion”. Villagers eyed them warily, though nobody was quite certain who took part in the nightly rites and who didn’t. They called such women Strega, “witches”. The rumors that surrounded the Strega were enough to bring a frown even to her mother’s face. Once, when Ravenna had been but nine or ten, her mother found her in the kitchen at midnight, grinding fresh pepper into the chimney while repeating words a neighbor told her. The girl said the spell would ward away meddlesome suitors from Ravenna’s true love by jinxing them with uncontrollable sneezing. Ravenna’s mother made her vow never to try magic again, because Stregoneria invited the malocchio, the evil eye, into one’s home. She told Ravenna these women gathered to worship the moon when it shined high in the sky, long after respectable folk went to bed.

It was said the Strega performed all kinds of pagan rites, that they cursed unfaithful husbands with things like rocks and lemons and straight pins. But it was their state of dress – or of undress – that raised eyebrows. Skyclad, according to the hushed whispers of the villagers. In other words, nude. The thought still brought a rush of blood to Ravenna’s cheeks, and it made her heart beat a little faster. It all sounded so scandalous. But how she wished that she could taste a little of that power. Dancing in the moonlight without a stitch of clothing. Casting all her pent-up anger and crushed dreams against him. Having an ounce of control in her life, when all had gone so wrong, when she was so terribly, dreadfully tired… Ravenna jerked her arm away from the boiling pot. Visions of dark nights in Sicily fled her mind and were replaced with the decay surrounding her. The murky room that served as kitchen, living room and bedroom at once. The shrieking and shouting from the neighbors next door. The squalling baby in the apartment above. And her jar of dried beans.

Ravenna shook the contents into the bubbling water. She watched the grains bob up and down, dancing wildly to the effervescence of the liquid. After a couple of minutes, she took the pot off the fire and covered it tightly so the beans could soak. Women of the Stregoneria accorded a special kind of magic to fava beans – or at least so she had heard. Ravenna had grown up next to a field of them. She was no stranger to those perfect pale flowers, marred only by a spot of black. According to the Strega, the dark stain was none other than the mark of the Lord of the Underworld, when he had touched the pristine white petals with his sinister finger. This time, it was a brisk series of knocks that pulled her away from her reverie. “Leone,” she noted in a flat tone when she opened the door. “Come va?” The stout man teemed with excitement. His fingers, roughened by decades of work on the docks with her husband, beat eagerly against the doorframe. His eyes were crinkled from too much sun, but there was no mistaking the glimmer in his dark irises. “That’s some blinker you got there.” Ravenna shook her hair to cover the outcome of last night’s row. “What brings you over? Is there anything wrong with Santino?” Please, make it so a big, heavy crate fell on that louse.

“Listen Ravenna, you’re a fine lady. But rules are rules, yeah?” She squared her jaw. “It depends what you’re talking about, Leone.” The docker nudged his way inside. Ravenna didn’t like how his hand rested on the table with a little too much familiarity. “As a friend, I’m givin’ you guys a week.” The confidence in his voice was starting to play a number on Ravenna’s nerves. “Please, just get to the point.” “Scusa, Ravenna. We played cards with Santino. And Santino…” The docker scratched the back of his head awkwardly. Ravenna’s heart dropped. “He lost.” He always loses, she wanted to scream. Why did he gamble, when they had nothing to gamble with in the first place? The safe where they kept their money was just as empty as their pantry.

Not an earring or a shiny trinket of her mother’s remained. Everything had been pawned, sold, stolen.


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Updated: 24 November 2021 — 02:21

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