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Authors: Siobhan Daiko

Lady of Asolo

BOOK: Lady of Asolo
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Lady of Asolo

 

 

SIOBHAN DAIKO

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Published by FRAGRANT BOOKS

First Edition 2014

The English used in this publication follows the spelling and idiomatic conventions of the United Kingdom.

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior permission in writing of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other non-commercial uses permitted by the copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher at the email address below.

This is a work of fiction. The locations are a mixture of real and imagined. All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2014 Siobhan Daiko

All rights reserved.

Cover painting “Asolo” by Douglas Bland  (courtesy of the Mellor Collection)

Cover design
www.jdsmith-design.com

Edited by John Hudspith
www.johnhudspith.co.uk

All enquiries to
[email protected]

For Clodagh

1

ITALY

JUNE 1989

 

 

 

Fern pushed open her bedroom door. Something was burning; she was sure of it. In the corridor, morning sunlight filtered through the shutters, but there was no sign of a fire. The passage was clear of smoke.
Oh, thank God.
She sniffed in the acrid odour.
Bleach, perhaps?

A stir of cold air, and her skin prickled.

‘Lorenza!’

Fern jumped. ‘Who’s there?’

Snorts reverberated from behind the closed door. Aunt Susan, Dad’s sister, could snore for Britain just like Dad. Maybe the voice she thought she’d heard was just an echo?

Slippers flip-flapping, Fern padded along the corridor and down the spiral staircase. In the kitchen, a fat tabby cat wound its way around her legs. She bent to stroke the smooth fur, catching the scent of roses from the vase on the table. The open-plan room gave onto a wide veranda fronting the ground floor of Aunt Susan’s house. There was a fireplace between the cabinets, and a sitting area with a sofa, an armchair and a television beyond. It was a homely kitchen, well-used and comfortable. Not like the “shoebox” where she prepared her own meals in London.

Through the picture window, a narrow road hugged vineyards and cornfields. Dawn light illuminated a range of hills in the distance. An ancient fortress-like building sat on the highest crest, and below the fort nestled the town of Asolo. A place for writers, musicians and artists, by all accounts. Fern wiped the sleep from her eyes. Would she find the peace she was seeking here?

‘Lorenza . . .’

The whisper, so plaintive, came from right next to her. ‘Who is it?’

Silence.

Feeling a tad ridiculous, Fern repeated the question.

Nothing.
Must be my imagination.

She went over to the bookshelf and picked up her aunt’s latest novel.
The Duke’s Mistress - A Romance by Susan Finch.
She loved reading and couldn’t wait to lose herself in it.

Her foot knocked against something rough. A jagged piece of wood. About six inches long. Blackened by fire. Had the cat brought it in? She leant down and touched a finger to it. Cold as a tomb. A sick feeling in her gut, she picked it up and threw it into the grate. Was that what she’d smelt? No. It had burnt out long ago . . .

‘Lorenza.’

The word hung in the air.

A sliver of ice slipped down Fern’s spine. With a yowl the cat ran from the room, its tail fluffed out to twice its normal size. Floorboards creaked above her head.

‘Is that you, my lovely? You’re up early,’ Aunt Susan said in her Welsh lilt. She came down the stairs in an old flannel dressing-gown that hugged her portly figure, and pushed frizzy grey hair back from her forehead, dislodging a pair of tortoiseshell-framed glasses.

‘Something woke me and I couldn’t get back to sleep again.’

Aunt Susan gave her a myopic stare. ‘A bad dream?’

‘Don’t think so.’ She was cured of her nightmares, she hoped. The dreadful dreams of flames and death. Smoke pouring through the blackened tunnels. The panic and the choking and the searing in her lungs.


Lorenza . . .

Like a soft echo.

‘Did you hear that?’

Aunt Susan switched on the kettle. ‘Hear what?’

‘Someone’s whispering.’

‘I can’t hear anything,’ Aunt Susan said, settling her glasses onto her nose. ‘It must be the wind.’

Fern peered through the window, but the olive trees outside were completely still. She glanced at the fireplace. No sign of that piece of wood she’d thrown in earlier. She told herself not to be pathetic. There had to be an explanation for the whispering. Someone outside could be calling out,
Lorenza
, or her ears might be playing tricks on her. Not her eyes, though. She was sure she’d seen that piece of burnt wood.

‘Where’s Gucci Cat got to?’ Aunt Susan poured water into the teapot. ‘He’s usually here in the mornings, begging to be fed.’

‘I saw him earlier. Don’t worry.’

‘Oh, that’s good. We could go to Asolo after breakfast, if you like.’

‘Perfect! I’ll take my sketchpad and try to capture some of the scenery.’ Fern rubbed her arms. ‘Isn’t it rather chilly in here?’

‘Not to me it isn’t. Quite the opposite, in fact. Early June can be as hot as mid-summer. You’re just tired after your journey last night, my lovely. I always feel cold when I’m tired.’

‘I suppose.’

 

***

 

They set off in Aunt Susan’s Fiat 500 and, half an hour later, were sitting at a table on the outside terrace of the Caffè Centrale sipping frothy cappuccinos in the warmth of a glorious, sunny day.

Fern studied the building with the frescoed walls on the other side of the cobbled piazza. The sunshine lit faded outlines of a battle scene, knights on horseback carrying lances, ghosts from centuries past. But wasn’t something missing? Shouldn’t there be an external staircase leading to the first floor? No. This was her first visit to Asolo. She must be mistaken.

A fountain graced the centre of the square, a column with grooved shafts at its base, and a barrel-chested pigeon bobbed down to drink from the flow. The winged Lion of St Mark surveyed the scene from the top of the pillar.
Symbol of the Venetian Republic.
How on earth did she know that? 

She tapped the coffee spoon on the side of her cup. All very strange.
I’m tired. Just tired. My subconscious mind is intruding on my conscious one. That’s all.

The scrape of chairs, and a tall man dressed in faded denim jeans and an open-necked white shirt came up to their table.


Buongiorno
, Susan.’ The man bent and kissed Aunt’s cheeks, his tanned face a contrast to her pallid complexion.

‘Luca. What a lovely surprise! This is my niece, Fern. She’s staying with me for a few weeks.’

Fern held out her hand.

‘Haven’t we met before?’

‘I don’t think so.’ She would remember meeting this man. He was probably in his early thirties, judging by the slight recession in his hairline. Not much older than her. And too good-looking (he wouldn't look out of place on the cover of one of Aunt Susan’s novels). Not that she was interested. Far from it . . .

Something passed through her as his warm palm enfolded hers. Something a bit like a mild electric shock. Hard to describe, but it made her feel light-headed. She grabbed hold of the table.

‘We’ll leave walking up to the Rocca for another day.’ Aunt Susan pointed towards the old fort. ‘The weather is a bit hot for the hike. Let’s visit the Queen’s Castle then call it a day.’

‘The Queen’s Castle? Did Asolo have a queen?’

‘Queen Caterina Cornaro.’ Luca took the seat next to her and stretched out his long legs. ‘Daughter of Venice. Married off to the King of Cyprus. Persuaded to abdicate by the Republic, and given the fiefdom of Asolo in 1489.’

‘Luca’s an expert on the subject,’ Aunt Susan said.

‘Are you a historian, Luca?’ He was unlike any of the fusty old historians she’d met when she’d gone to the History Club at university.

His blue eyes crinkled at the corners. ‘An architect, but I’m involved in restoration work. I met your aunt at a talk I gave in the local museum. I’m not such an expert on the Queen.’ He grinned. ‘However, I do know about the castle.’

‘I’ve got a book about Caterina Cornaro at home,’ Aunt Susan said. ‘Quite academic, but interesting all the same.’

‘Well, that’s my holiday reading sorted, then. Come on, Auntie! The castle is waiting for us.’ She turned to Luca. ‘Your English is excellent. I wish I spoke Italian half as well.’
That would be an achievement considering I only know a few phrases.

‘My mother’s English. I grew up bilingual and I was educated in England. I’m going to the castle too, so I might see you up there.’

‘Great.’ Fern unhooked her handbag from the back of the chair, got to her feet, and followed Aunt Susan across the road, her long skirt billowing around her legs. Holiday clothes: the ones in which she felt most comfortable. The Venetian plain stretched beyond her gaze, the silhouette of a church tower etched against the clear blue sky. Something about it tugged at her memory.
What?
She shook her head and caught up with her aunt.

‘In Asolo, you should walk with your nose in the air, the guidebook says.’ Aunt Susan took her by the arm. ‘Look at those arched windows and purple petunias cascading from the balconies!’

‘It’s stunning. So well-preserved.’ Fern loved how the colours of the buildings harmonised with each other in shades of cream and apricot. And the shop signs were discreet, not like in towns at home. ‘If I walked with my nose in the air without you to hold onto,’ she said, chuckling, ‘I might end up falling flat on my face on these cobbles.’

Aunt Susan laughed. ‘Indeed. Only do so if absolutely sure you’re safe. Goes without saying . . .’ She led Fern up a short steep incline, under an archway to a high terrace. Then she stopped abruptly. ‘Goodness.’

‘What’s wrong?’

‘I’ve just thought of the solution to a plot problem. It’s been niggling at me for ages.’

‘That’s good, right?’

‘Yes, but I need to get it down before I forget.’ Aunt Susan rummaged in her handbag. ‘
Duw!
I’ve left my notebook in the car. Will you be all right while I go and get it?’

‘I can tear you off a sheet from my sketchpad.’

‘Thanks, my lovely, but I need to check through my notes. I’ll meet you on the terrace.’

A quiver of unease passed through Fern. The tables sprawling across the patio, shaded by ivory-coloured umbrellas, seemed alien to this place.
How odd.

Of course everything would be different, she told herself. She was used to the drizzle of London and red-bricked houses with grey slate roofs, the drone of jetliners on their way to Heathrow, the hunched crowds hurrying along pavements, and shops screaming sales or unbeatable offers around every corner.

She climbed to the ramparts, took her sketchpad from her bag, and gazed at green terraced gardens glistening in the bright sunshine. Raising a hand to her eyes, she shaded them from the intensity. A slight dizziness. The light changed and the colours became washed-out, over-exposed. Her hand went to the parapet. She was floating, looking down on the scene from above the castle wall.

The sunlight fractured and splintered like glass shards. The tall building had transformed into a two-storey structure. A regal lady and her attendants, mounted on magnificent horses, were passing under the portcullis.

Fern shut her eyes and opened them again, but the building was once more as it had first appeared. Only the faint clop of horseshoes on cobblestones resonated in her ears, and the air was perfumed with the lemony scent of caper plants growing from the cracks in the wall.

BOOK: Lady of Asolo
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