The crimson tinge that saturated the Duchess' cheeks was visible to anyone who was paying attention, and under the scrutinizing gaze of the Duke, the contrast of scarlet on milky white was quite startling. Not for the first time, nor the last, the Duchess, who was so enchanted by anything small and insignificant, flushed as if revealing her innermost secrets.
The first time the Duke noticed something was wrong, he shrugged it off. His eyes, constantly trained on the Duchess, followed her petite figure as she traipsed her familiar path through the Ferrara Manor garden. Her typical route consisted of gazing listlessly at the flowers, a hint of wonderment adorning her features, until her curiosity was satisfied and she returned to the palace to tend her duties. On this particular day however, something was different. One of the palace servants, whose name he did not care to remember, approached her, a fond smile etched clearly on his plain face. Words were exchanged and the Duchess' soft laughter was carried like a whisper in the wind, to be overheard by the Duke, who frowned in his place on the balcony. His eyes narrowed and his lips set, however nothing more was said and the rest of the day proceeded without incident.
In the study of his ornate sleeping quarters the Duke received a letter, addressed to the Duchess. Without hesitation he opened the letter to divulge its contents; she was his property, therefore her possessions belonged to him. It was with growing resentment that he scanned the parchment:
My Lady Duchess,
Thank you for allowing me the pleasure of your company this afternoon. It was wonderful seeing you again and I am most pleased that you took delight in the frangipanis I had picked for you. At your discretion I would like to request another visit from you. Please reply as promptly as possible.
Eagerly awaiting your reply,
With shaking hands he crumpled the letter and tossed in into the crackling hearth, exhaling slowly as the last traces of ink turned to embers. He knew what it meant of course - anyone with common sense knew what it meant. It had occurred to him, that perhaps he was mistaken; perhaps his mistress had merely engaged in conversation with the faceless Alessio'. But he was the Duke of Ferrara, it wasn't often he was wrong.
With silent determination he deliberated, his long fingers drumming furiously on the mantelpiece. How was it that she'd managed to slip out unnoticed, only to arrange meetings with other men? Surely he'd not been so careless as to allow her out of his sight. When had she ah, but of course: the meeting with the Count and Countess. She'd been ever so convincing when she'd proposed it. How stupid of him to succumb so easily to her deceptions. Should he confront her? Should he expose to everyone the harlot she was, consequently ruining her entire reputation? No, he decided - a Duke should never stoop so low.
A knock announcing the Duchess' presence drew him from his musings, the creases on his face smoothing unconsciously. And for the second time in two days, he ignored the burning rage manifesting in the back of his mind. But as he prepared for sleep, one final thought rose to the forefront: patience.
Two weeks passed before the Duke grew suspicious once again. The portrait of his wife he'd had commissioned by Fra Pandolf was finally complete. As predicted, the Duchess had squealed and fawned over the painting as if it were her life's treasure. Even the Duke had to admit that the magnificent piece of art was flawless: the fine sculpted jawline, unblemished skin, soft, but elegant features and a gown that gave off a sense of grandeur and sophistication, quite befitting of a Duchess.
The light pink that dusted her porcelain cheeks, however, did not afford the same approval. Anger bubbled like acid in his stomach. An affair, that's all it could mean. The greasy artist Fra Pandolf had seduced his wife. But of course, he wasn't blind; his wife was far from innocent. He'd ignored it thus far: the flirtatious smiles to other men, the flood of colour that never seemed to leave her skin and the soft crinkle of her eyes, always directed elsewhere. Something had to be done, that much was obvious.
"Send for Giorgio at once," the Duke snapped at a nearby servant, "I'll be in my study." "Right away sir," came the timid reply, as he scurried away down the hall.
Upon Giorgio's arrival the Duke shifted in his place, eyeing the polished jewel on his ring finger. After a moments silence, his eyes shifted to the rough, intimidating man before him. His posture was rigid and his face was partially covered by a thin, black scarf.
"I trust we still have an agreement?" the Duke said evenly, his face void of emotion.
"Of course, my Lord," Giorgio replied in the same measured tone.
"I am pleased. There is a task I wish for you to complete in exchange for 400 Florins."
The man seemed to consider the offer as he fixed the Duke with a hard stare. He could practically hear the gears turning in his brain. After several long minutes Giorgio removed his mask to reveal his bearded chin, an audible sigh escaping his lips.
"Your offer seems reasonable," he muttered at last. "What will you have me do?"
The Duke gave a feral grin and stepped forward, eliminating the space between them.
"I want you to kill my wife."
* * * *
It was in the early hours of the morning that the mangled corpse of the Duchess was discovered in the drawing room. The elderly servant gave a piercing screech, the deafening sound ringing throughout the mansion. For, propped against the previously spotless wall was the Duchess, whose slender form, whilst breathtaking in life, now lay distorted and marred until almost unrecognisable. The slow drip of scarlet blood created a thick pool on the carpet, upon which the servant collapsed.