Venom, p.1

Venom, page 1

 part  #1 of  Secrets of the Eternal Rose Series



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  In memory of MY FATHER

  Philomel Books • A division of Penguin Young Readers Group.

  Published by The Penguin Group. Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014, U.S.A. Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.). Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England. Penguin Ireland, 25 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd). Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd). Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi—110 017, India. Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, Auckland 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd). Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa. Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England.

  Copyright © 2012 by Paper Lantern Lit LLC. All rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the publisher, Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, 345 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014. Philomel Books, Reg. U.S. Pat. & Tm. Off. The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content. Published simultaneously in Canada. Printed in the United States of America.

  Edited by Jill Santopolo. Design by Amy Wu. Text set in 12.5-point Winchester New ITC Std.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Paul, Fiona. Venom / Fiona Paul. p. cm.—(The secrets of the eternal rose ; bk. 1) Summary: In Renaissance Venice, orphaned Cassandra Caravello is one of the elite but feels trapped in the city of water until she stumbles upon a murdered woman and is drawn into a dangerous world of courtesans, graverobbers, and secret societies, guided by Falco, a mysterious and alluring artist. [1. Mystery and detective stories. 2. Social classes—Fiction. 3. Artists—Fiction. 4. Orphans—Fiction. 5. Love—Fiction. 6. Venice (Italy)—History—1508–1797—Fiction. 7. Italy—History—1559–1789—Fiction.] I. Title. PZ7.P278345Ven 2012

  [Fic]—dc23 2011047154

  ISBN: 978-1-101-59152-9

  10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1









  “It is human nature

  to fear the dead,

  but it is the living

  who are capable of malice,

  evil, and utter destruction.”


  Table of Contents




































  About the Author


  Man falls down before the Angel of Death like a beast before the slaughterer.” The priest’s low voice echoed across the cavernous church. Thin shafts of sunlight cut paths through the stained-glass windows high above the altar.

  Cass tugged at the neckline of her deep purple dress, wishing Siena hadn’t laced her stays so tightly. The stiff undergarments pressed down on her chest; she could hardly breathe. She looked over at Madalena. Mada’s expression was partially hidden beneath layers of black silk. Cass wondered if her friend was thinking the same thing she was: that the priest made it sound like this was an execution, not the funeral of a fourteen-year-old contessa from one of Venice’s most prominent families. Madalena dabbed at her kohl-lined eyes with a handkerchief.

  Cass turned her gaze back to the priest. His robes were cinched with a belt of fraying rope, and his eyes were as sharp and dark as volcanic glass. He gestured expansively with his arms as he spoke, making his cloak billow from his shoulders like a pair of wings.

  In front of the priest, a flimsily wrapped bundle lay on a stone pedestal. Liviana. The young girl had spent her last few weeks in bed, coughing up blood, growing weaker and weaker. Gradually, her thin, pale figure had disappeared into her silken sheets.

  Now her body—for that’s all it was, Cass had to keep reminding herself—lay shrouded in white burial wrappings and covered in flower petals.

  After the service, Liviana would be carried out of the church, rowed through the canals of Venice, and then transported across the lagoon to tiny San Domenico Island. There, she would be entombed in the old family crypt within the church graveyard just next to where Cass lived.

  Cass had caught a glimpse as the body was being wrapped and prepared for this final journey. Dressed in a pale pink gown that emphasized Livi’s porcelain skin and gaunt figure, the young blonde girl had looked more ghost than human. Livi’s mother had hung a loop of amethyst stones around her neck. The color would have perfectly highlighted the contessa’s light blue eyes.

  Only now those eyes were closed. Forever.

  Cass swallowed back a lump that rose suddenly and painfully in her throat. She had known Liviana for years—had spent many days playing in Livi’s family palazzo. And yet, she’d never felt close to her, never felt they could share secrets. Liviana had been angelic, and not just in her looks. She always behaved according to expectations, always spoke in a quiet murmur, was always docile and agreeable.

  And that was precisely why Cass had never understood her.

  Cass tried to behave; she really did. But sometimes the urge to do something completely overrode her education and upbringing. She didn’t want to break rules, but saw nothing wrong with climbing up the side of a building to get a better view of the busy Grand Canal, or running her hand across the velvety forehead of one of the Doge’s horses as they paraded through the narrow streets during a festival. Impulsive, her aunt, Agnese, called her. Cass preferred to think of it as living.

  A loud sniffling attracted Cass’s attention. She looked around. Many of her friends were in attendance, clothed in mourning garb: girls in dresses dark as thunderclouds, boys in their finest velvet cloaks.

  Madalena was now covering her mouth with her handkerchief. She let out another dainty sob. Mada was a year older than Cass and almost three years older than Liviana. She hadn’t even really been friends with Livi, but that didn’t matter. Mada felt everything intensely, and it made her all the more striking. It was as though the depth of her emotions had been written in the curve of her cheekbones and the darkness of her eyes.

  Madalena’s fiancé, Marco, stood to Mada’s left, tracing soft circles on the small of her back with his finge
rtips. The tender gesture made Cass’s chest tighten. She couldn’t help but think of her own fiancé, Luca da Peraga—a boy she hadn’t even laid eyes on in the last three years, and had never liked much as a child. She wondered if Luca would ever touch her like that. Probably not.

  She gave Madalena’s gloved hand a squeeze.

  Mada squeezed back and whispered, “It’s just…she’s so good. So sweet. Was, I mean. I can’t believe she’s—”

  “I know,” Cass murmured. “It doesn’t feel real.”

  Her friend was dead and she was just beginning to live. If you could call it that.

  Cass knew that the grief she was feeling—the hard, sharp pain behind her breastbone—was not only for Livi’s death, but for herself as well. With Liviana gone, Cass was more alone than ever. She might as well be dead; her life was spread in front of her, a series of high walls and predetermined paths, rules, and expectations, all as narrow as the canals, as stifling as a coffin.

  She glanced over at her aunt, Agnese, who stood stiffly to her right. Cass had moved into Agnese’s crumbling old villa five years ago, after her parents died. Her aunt had the money to maintain the estate properly, but seemed to relish the fact that the place was mimicking her own physical deterioration. Even some of the servants seemed just a tumble down the stairs away from disintegrating into dust. Plenty of people floated in and out of the villa—tutors and washerwomen, a near-constant flow of doctors and apothecaries—but no one that Cass could really talk to. Her lady’s maid, Siena, did her best, but she was so shy and obedient that Cass felt awkward speaking to her about anything but the most superficial subjects.

  Her aunt swayed dangerously, and Cass grabbed Agnese’s elbow to keep her from toppling over. No one is falling down before any angels today. The old lady regained her balance, but Cass thought she detected a soft snuffling sound coming from beneath Agnese’s veil. She leaned in toward her aunt. Agnese was snoring. She’d fallen asleep standing up! Cass bit back the wild and inappropriate urge to laugh. Good thing the maids were generous with the starch in their dresses. It was likely the only thing keeping her aunt from tumbling to the floor in a heap.

  “Aunt Agnese,” Cass whispered sharply.

  The old woman awoke with a grunt and refocused on the service, where the priest was now talking about how death was the great equalizer of men.

  As the priest droned on, Agnese’s eyelids drooped again. The stiff lace collar of the old woman’s dress kept her head from bobbing back on her neck, but her legs started to wobble. This time it was Siena, on Agnese’s other side, who steadied her. The lady’s maid flashed Cass a small smile before turning back to the ceremony.

  The priest waved his wooden crucifix in front of him. “It is not only the wicked that the serpent chooses to tempt. Like Eve, the righteous may also fall victim to his trickery.” His voice was reaching a crescendo. He slashed the air with the crucifix again, as if it were a weapon and he thought the devil himself might be present at the funeral. “You must always be mindful. Even in the waters of this city—no, especially in the waters of this city!—evil flows silently among us like venom. We are at its mercy.”

  Cass swore the priest’s eyes lingered on her for a moment. She suddenly felt unsteady, as if she were standing on water instead of solid ground. Recoiling slightly, she stepped backward to maintain her balance. She was grateful when the priest motioned for the mourners to be seated.

  As she gathered her skirts and settled into the wooden pew, Cass’s eyes flicked around the inside of the church. Everything looked slightly off, the way it did in dreams. Darkness merged with light. Liviana’s family and friends sat in orderly rows, black hats and veils obscuring their pale faces. Sunbeams ignited the brightly colored panes of stained glass, bathing the deep mahogany altar in hues of gold and green.

  The first days of spring had been wet and gray as always, but today had brought a brief reprieve: outside the church, songbirds warbled and tree limbs bowed toward the ground, heavy with white blossoms. The sun filtered through a new layer of haze that had just begun to settle over the city, and the wet surfaces of walls and cobblestones almost seemed to sparkle.

  It would rain again, and soon. But for now, it was like God was watching down on Liviana’s service, waiting for her to ascend. It gave Cass a strange feeling of hope intermingled with a restlessness to be out, away from the ceremony, away from all the death. Her heavy dress was too hot, too tight. It was suffocating her. The funeral was suffocating her.

  The idea of her whole life already decided, that was even worse—strangling.

  Beads of sweat formed on the back of her neck. She needed to get out.

  She blotted her eyes and scooted away from her still-dozing aunt. Sliding past Madalena, Cass tiptoed down the side aisle of the church. She made her way to the narthex and slipped quietly through one of the heavy wooden doors. Outside, a few men from Liviana’s family stood stiffly in their mourning attire; they would be in charge of moving the body from the church to a gondola for the ride out to San Domenico Island.

  Cass headed past them, to the corner of the cobblestone street that ran along the Grand Canal. If only she had her journal with her. She could jot down some thoughts, calm herself, see things as they really were. Cass’s journal had become a necessity; she wrote in it daily, and even when she had nothing to write about, the mere feel of her quill scratching across the paper soothed her. Agnese had forbidden her to bring it today, and Cass felt almost as if she were missing a limb.

  She paused in the shadow of a stately palazzo, leaning against the smooth marble wall, breathing in the familiar smells of Venice: moss and salt, the faint tinge of rotting garbage. Cass often took walks around her aunt’s estate at night; being unaccompanied in the light of day felt strange and a little bit frightening—but also freeing. She probably had only a few minutes to herself before Agnese woke up and sent Siena after her.

  Thick clouds were rolling in, but the spring day was still humid and hot. Cass pulled a black lacquer fan embellished with amethyst and gold leaf from the pocket of her cloak and waved it in front of her face. A piece of auburn hair fell across her eyes. She tucked the wayward strand back into her bun as she watched the people bustling past her—merchants carrying baskets of fish and vegetables, a pair of soldiers walking stiffly, the hilts of their swords clanking against their armor, a man with a long gray beard wearing a bright red cap that marked him as a Jew.

  This was more of Venice than Cass usually saw. Agnese rarely permitted her to leave San Domenico anymore. Even when she had lived on the Rialto, the commercial center of Venice proper, Cass’s parents had always given the gondoliers extra gold to take Cass and her lady’s maid straight from doorstep to doorstep. She had never been allowed to walk along the canals or loiter in the street as she was doing now. It wasn’t safe, her parents said, and of course, it wasn’t proper.

  Down the street, two men were shouting at each other in the alley outside a butcher shop. The argument seemed to be about a small white goat that the larger of the two men was holding. The other man kept trying to grab the goat. The poor animal bleated in fear as the men threatened to tear it in two. Venice…la Serenissima. The most serene republic. Cass knew Venice had gotten the nickname because the government preferred trade to war, but that didn’t mean the place was always peaceful.

  Just beyond them, a circle of boys were waving and hollering at her. They pushed and shoved one another and laughed as they beckoned. She scanned the group, looking for someone she recognized. There were four of them: unkempt hair and plain clothing marked them as commoners. One had an old fraying hat tipped at a crooked angle. The tallest of the group wore a brown suede doublet, covered in splotches of blue and green paint.

  Cass felt her heartbeat quicken. Artists. She had always been fascinated by art, but she’d never met a real artist. So why were they acting like they knew her? The tall boy paused to take a long drink from a leather canteen. He tossed the container to one of his friends, who ca
ught it just before it would have bounced off the damp cobblestones. A couple of peasant children hanging out of a doorway cheered and applauded. Maybe the boys were drunk and had confused her with someone else? Still, Cass raised her gloved hand in a hesitant half wave.

  Too late she realized the boys weren’t motioning to her at all. They were looking past her, shouting at someone behind her. She had just started to turn around when a boy slammed into her with the force of a bull.

  “Accidempoli!” Cass hit the cobbled ground hard, her back landing in a dirty puddle, the palm of her left glove ripping on the rough stone street. Miraculously, she had not hit her head.

  Cass felt warm breath against her chin. She had clenched her eyes shut, but opened them now to find herself pinned underneath a boy a couple of years older than she was. She could feel his body radiating heat into hers. The boy wore a thin smock spattered with paint. Dots of blood red and bright yellow swam before Cass’s eyes. She struggled to focus.

  He had dark brown hair that curled under at the ends and eyes as blue as the Adriatic. His smile tilted a little to the right. It was the smile of someone who loved getting into trouble.

  “Molte scuse!” He hopped back onto his feet. “I didn’t see you at all, bella signorina.” He bowed, then reached out a hand and yanked Cass off the ground unceremoniously. She felt a little dizzy as she stood. “Though I can’t say it wasn’t a pleasure running into you.” Letting go of her hand, he brushed a droplet of dirty water from the side of her face. He leaned in close to murmur in her ear. “You should be more careful, you know.”

  Cass opened her mouth but no words came out. Again, she felt her stays crushing down on her chest. “Careful?” she managed to croak. “You’re the one who knocked me over.”

  “I couldn’t resist,” he said, and he actually had the nerve to wink at her. “It’s not often I get the chance to put my hands on such a beautiful woman.”

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