‘… as it seems we have a while to wait I promised your wife I would tell you my story. But before I begin my part of the tale there are things I need to say about the thirteen houses, things that are secrets and must never leave these four walls.’ Her listeners nodded, so she carried on. ‘Many of the houses prize purity of line above anything. They marry cousin to cousin, and sometimes closer than that. This is, as anyone who breeds animals must know, not a good thing. The pure bloodlines of many of the families have been contaminated by inbreeding. There are idiots and deformed children who are quietly disposed of, but the inbreeding goes on. Consequently, the Neders are congenital idiots. The C’hin carry the falling sickness. Most of the Shaughnessy women are barren. The Frankish men are generally impotent. And the Schiapetti are just plain depraved. I could go on, but I’m sure you have the picture.’
‘My own story begins when I was fourteen years old. Until that time, I lived with my parents at Massimo Schiapetti senior’s quinta two days’ ride south of the city. Just after my birthday, some women came from the big house and examined me to make sure I was a virgin, and that I was physically ready to bear children. Then they took me away from my parents to the house. There were a dozen or so of us, all told, gathered from the Schiapetti holdings, and after we’d been at the house for a few days we were bathed and nicely dressed and then paraded in front of the master and three strange men. The master pointed out a redhead from the distrada, and the three men indicated an interest in two other girls, myself and a shepherd’s daughter. I later came to understand that the Schiapetti sold me that day. Sold both of us. My companion was about seventeen, and as blonde as a wheat field, with impressive breasts and a stoical temperament, I was tiny, white blonde and scared out of my wits. If I had not had that older girl with me I don’t honestly know how I would have managed. Her name was Breda, and as we were whisked across the country in a closed carriage, she explained exactly what was likely to happen to us. She made it seem bearable and told me it wouldn’t be forever. She knew of other girls who had been taken this way and were later returned to their families more or less unharmed, and with a gift of money.’
‘After what seemed to me to be an endless journey we were brought to a hunting lodge where there were about twenty girls ranging in age from seventeen to twelve years. We were there to serve the pleasure of Seamus Shaughnessy, and to bear him the children his well-born and well-connected wife could not. The housekeeper wasn’t unkind, but she did make it clear that there was no escape, and that we’d better please the master or else. We never asked what ‘or else’ was, we were too afraid. Seamus was by that time nearing seventy, and a life of dissipation had left its mark on him. I prayed that he wouldn’t want me, but he did. Myself, Breda, and the twelve-year-old were chosen. Then the young one disappeared. I learned many years later that she threw herself off the roof after her first night in the master’s bed. I guess I’m of a more pragmatic turn of mind as I managed to take Breda’s advice and concentrate on the prospect of a good breakfast while the old sot was fumbling about me. At the end of a fairly unpleasant fortnight he returned to the city and we waited. As it turned out we were both with child. Seamus was tickled pink and we were brought to the family’s estate by the great river to give birth. Lady Shaughnessy was also brought to the estate to await the delivery of ‘her’ children. She was, it turned out, a deeply maternal woman, who wanted babies to love and care for. She was even kind to us.’
‘I went into labour first, and a long difficult time I had of it. I was really much too young and too small to have a baby, but, fortunately for me, I come of tough stock and I survived. I only saw my daughter for a few moments before they took her away. My friend Breda’s son was born dead. The cord was around his throat, and the midwife they employed wasn’t skilled. Breda managed to creep into my room three days after my baby was born to tell me that she had plenty of good milk and was feeding my little girl, also that the family had decided to keep her on as wet nurse and then nursemaid. She told me that my baby had been named Anita, and promised to love her. With that I had to be satisfied. I never saw either one again.’
‘I was sent home after my body healed, with a large present of money. It was enough for my family to leave the quinta, and buy a small inn in a valley close to the Imperial highway. I went north to learn healing and midwifery, determined to protect women from the unskilled and ham-fisted ‘care’ that cost Breda her child and almost cost me my life. I spent the next twenty-plus years in hospitals and monasteries, biding my time until my youthful looks faded and I could return to the city and ply my trade.’
‘In the meantime, my daughter grew to be a real beauty, as famed for her gentle kindness as the loveliness of her face. She was, it is said, very much in love with a half cousin from a humble branch of her father’s family, but such a marriage for Seamus Shaughnessy’s only daughter was not to be countenanced. And when she was nineteen her father married her to the forty-year-old Massimo Schiapetti. It was, by all accounts a loveless match, although Massimo was kind enough to his wife, and pleased to find her fertile. A year after the wedding she presented him with a son, who they named Rodrigo: he died of influenza at the age of four. Two years after Rodrigo’s birth Anita fell pregnant again, this time she gave Massimo a daughter, but lost her own life in the process. I arrived back in the city in time to learn that I was a grandmother, and my daughter was dead.’ An paused for a moment and wiped her tears cheeks with her wrinkled old hands.
‘My granddaughter was name Anaya, and she inherited her mother’s beauty, but her father’s nature, growing more and more vicious and depraved as she grew older. She had a succession of lovers and was notorious for her treatment of her servants. When she was twenty-five her father negotiated a marriage with the Emperor’s only son. It was a politically splendid move, but on a personal level it could scarcely have been worse. She loathed him because he either couldn’t or wouldn’t satisfy her sexually, and he despised her because she was stupid and vicious. Even so, they remained married, and I oversaw five accouchements in which she presented her lord with six children. Five sons and Princess Ana.’
‘So there you have it. My daughter, conceived by rape, and married for politics. My granddaughter, conceived for politics, married for politics, and murdered for politics. And my great-granddaughter, also conceived for politics, but with half a chance of making a life of her own…’