Out May 2nd 2023
Vilified by history, Caterina Sforza learned early that her life was not her own. Married at age ten, she was a pawn in the ever-changing political environment of Renaissance Italy.
Resigned to her life as a fifteenth-century wife, Caterina adapted to the role she was expected to play: raising and educating her children, helping the poor in her new home, and turning a blind eye to her husband’s increasingly shameful behaviour. But Fate had other plans for her, and soon Caterina’s path would be plagued by murder, betrayal, and heartbreak.
“Could I write all, the world would turn to stone.”
Chapter One: 1472
“No. It’s too much. I won’t allow it.” The voice paused. “It’s unnatural.” The last two words were a whisper, and Caterina, hidden under the table, strained to hear.
“He’s a powerful man, and the union is important for Milan.” Caterina heard the irritation in her father’s voice and wished she could somehow leave the room unnoticed. But she’d chased a ball under the table just as the duke and the others had arrived, and, knowing she wasn’t meant to be in the study, Caterina had frozen.
Galeazzo Sforza continued. “You know of our difficulties with the papal states. This union would protect us from any unwanted attention from Rome and guarantee added protection against the French.”
“Important for Milan but at the expense of my daughter.” The woman looked around the room at each of the men. “And the expense of our mortal souls.”
“He’s the Pope’s nephew. He’ll see to our souls.” Galeazzo waved away the objection.
“You saw the way he looked at her last night. A thirty-year-old man lusting after an eleven-year-old girl. And only a year older than your own daughter.”
Caterina knew she was being spoken of and held her breath to avoid detection.
Constanza’s husband, and one of the duke’s loyal retainers, tried to calm his wife. “My dear, it’s not like that. You imagined it, he was probably admiring the fine feast Sforza had prepared for us,” he offered weakly.
“I can’t.” Constanza stood firm, her chin tilted upward in defiance. “I won’t. There are many things I’ve done for Milan and my family, it’s the painful duty of all women to suffer for their children but there are limits to the things a mother will sacrifice. And this is one of them.”
From her position under the cloth-covered table, Caterina could see her father’s feet pacing. For moments the only noise in the room was the crackling of the fire and her own heartbeat. A log shifted position, sending tendrils of sparks upward, making Caterina jump. Still, no one heard her.
Finally, Constanza’s husband spoke. “I think —”
He was interrupted by Galeazzo. “I won’t have this damage our friendship. You’re one of my best generals however we need that papal partnership.” He nodded; a decision made. “I’ll offer my own daughter, Caterina.”
“But she’s only ten,” Constanza whispered. “You’re her father…” her voice trailed away.
“I am. And I know what’s best for my family. Caterina will marry Girolamo Riario.”
Caterina didn’t remember anything else. She must have waited for the room to empty but had no recall except that she hadn’t heard any opposition to her father’s proposal. At some point, she crawled out from under the table and, leaving the ball behind, made her way to her room.
“What’s wrong?” Luisa was waiting for her. Provided to Caterina as a junior maid and helper, Luisa Tommasa had become the young Sforza’s closest friend. More reserved than the other girl, Luisa nevertheless joined Caterina in any adventure that presented itself. A strand of her curly black hair fell across her olive skin, and she tucked it back into her beaded hairnet as she turned to Caterina.
“I heard something I wasn’t supposed to.”
Luisa rolled her eyes. “You always hear things. You’re always listening when you shouldn’t.” She returned to her sewing. “It’s a sin to eavesdrop,” she added piously.
“I wasn’t. At least, not on purpose. My ball rolled under the table in father’s study and people came in and I was stuck. What was I supposed to do, put my fingers in my ears?”
Looking up again, Luisa tilted her head. “What did you hear this time?” She expected another lurid tale of a maid and page caught in a dark corner of the palace. This time, however, the more Caterina revealed, the more she leaned forward, dropping her sewing on the ground to focus on her friend’s words.
“You?” Luisa’s eyes widened in disbelief.
Caterina nodded. “Yes. My father said it himself.”
“I… your father…” Luisa stumbled over her words, unsure how to react or what to say. “Does your cousin know?”
“I don’t know. I think they must have told her by now.” Caterina glanced out her bedroom window and saw the sun had already begun to set. How long had she remained under the table, frozen in shock?
“What will you do?”
Caterina had only the same answer. “I don’t know. Whatever my father says. I have no choice.”
“Can you imagine a life with,” Luisa paused, “him?”
“Pope Sixtus IV’s nephew. Girolamo Riario. You may as well get used to saying it.” Caterina thought for a moment. As a Sforza, she had access to the famed Milanese library, only second to that of the Vatican, and had grown up on tales of knights and maidens and chivalry. None of them told the story of an overweight thirty-year-old with a permanent petulant look. She swallowed. “No, I can’t imagine my life from now on. But there’s nothing I can do, it’s my father’s decision.”
They were staring at each other helplessly when Caterina’s stepmother rushed in. Bona of Savoy, the duke’s second wife, had only been married for three years but was already admired and beloved by Milan for her kindness, humour, and love of music and food. A devout woman, she had treated Caterina, one of many of the duke’s illegitimate children, as her own, ensuring both the girl’s mind and soul were seen to.
“You’re here. Good. I must speak with you.” She sat on an elaborately carved wooden chair next to the fireplace and waited for Caterina to join her. Luisa bobbed her petite body before Bona and, with a sympathetic glance at her friend, hurried from the room.
Bona wasted no time getting to the point. As soon as Caterina was settled, she spoke. “You’re to be married.”
Keeping her surprise to herself, Bona merely replied, “How?”
“I was under the table in the study when father spoke about it.”
“Your spying will get you into trouble someday.” Seeing the girl’s face begin to crumble, she smiled gently. “I’ll forgive you this time.” Taking a deep breath, she continued. “Do you understand what being married means?” Her heart ached for this child, not hers yet as beloved as any from her own body.
Caterina nodded. “Father needs to keep the Pope and Rome happy.”
That was more or less the gist, however there was more, and Bona felt physical pain in her chest at the idea. Before she could say anything, Caterina spoke again.
“How much am I being sold for?”
This time Bona didn’t hide her shock. “Did someone say that to you?” She struggled to keep her fury contained.
“No. I heard the servants talking in the hall.”
Was her stepdaughter repeating what she’d overheard, or did the child understand the situation more than she was given credit for? Seeing Caterina waiting for a reply, Bona smoothed her dress and adopted a business-like façade. “Ten thousand ducats.”
Caterina considered the number for a few moments. “That’s a lot.”
“Yes, it is.” Bona wanted to move away from this unsavoury line of questioning; unfortunately, it meant moving to something far worse. “Do you know what is expected of you? As a wife?’ Seeing the confusion on the girl’s face, she pushed on. “Not the palace management or entertaining, I mean at night, in the bedroom.” She bit her tongue, hoping the sharp pain would stop her emotions from overtaking her. She tasted copper.
Caterina felt her face burn and looked down at her feet, embarrassed. “I do. I’ve heard the maids and pages telling stories.” Her voice was barely above a whisper.
Bona breathed a sigh of relief. She was angry at the servants and their often simple ways but thankful that she didn’t now need to explore the topic further. She stood. “The announcement will be made tonight. You must prepare yourself, for I’m not certain of the reaction.”
“Why?” Caterina had stood a second after her stepmother and peered up at the tall brunette woman with awe.
“Never you mind. Now, let’s see what we have. You need a gown and an over gown. I think the black gown with the detachable sleeves. It’ll be warm next to the hall fire, and you won’t need them. And the gold stitched overcoat to go over the top. I’ll send Luisa back in. I’m sure she’s just outside.” Bona stared at the girl fondly, knowing the days of her carefree childhood were ending. The bitter taste in her mouth was no longer from the blood where she’d bitten herself; instead, it was the taste of shame that she couldn’t do more for the girl.
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Copyright K Evans 2023