Venom, p.12

Venom, page 12

 part  #1 of  Secrets of the Eternal Rose Series

 

Venom
 



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  “S-sorry,” she stammered, trying to back away.

  The soldier nudged his friend. “Time for you to pick one. Looks like this one has chosen me.” His hand tightened around Cass’s wrist. Instinctively, she tried to pull away, but his grip was too tight. For a second she stared down at his thick muscular forearm, her eyes tracing the purple veins snaking beneath his skin.

  “There’s been a misunderstanding,” she started. “I’m not for sale tonight.” She twisted her wrist but couldn’t break free.

  “Why is that?” The soldier leaned in close and Cass recoiled from the pungent smell of liquor on his breath.

  “I—” Her lips pressed together and her brain seized up. All she could see was that room, the noises, the sweaty bodies moving together. She couldn’t bring herself to look into the soldier’s face. She opened her mouth again, but the only noise that came out was a whimper of fear.

  The soldier downed his glass of ale and raked his fingertips down the side of her face. “Don’t worry. I’ll pay a fair price.” He pulled a small leather satchel from underneath his breastplate and started counting out coins.

  “She’s not for sale, because I’ve already paid for her.” The lone blond man stood up from his spot on the corner divan. He had a soft lilting voice, vaguely foreign. His cloak and boots were made of lush velvet, and even the way he walked across the room marked him as a member of the upper class. She pulled free of the soldier as the man moved to her side, her eyes focused down at the bronze skin on the back of his extended hand.

  And then she realized who it was. Cristian. Madalena’s friend. He had given no indication that he recognized her. The soldier glared at Cristian for a few seconds, probably debating whether Cass was worth fighting over. He fiddled with the hilt of his sword and mumbled something about foreigners under his breath. Eventually he turned his back on the two of them.

  Cristian led Cass through the salon back to the entrance hall. “You should probably go,” he said. “You don’t seem to belong here.”

  Mannaggia. What if he did recognize her? If he said something to Madalena, Cass would have to face an inquisition. “I’m new,” Cass faltered, keeping her head lowered. “I guess I got a little scared.”

  An unreadable look passed across Cristian’s face. He stuffed his right hand deep into the pocket of his cloak and took her hand in his left. Briefly, he touched his lips to the skin above her fingers. His mouth was cold—too cold. The image of a vampire, its fangs wet with blood, flashed briefly into Cass’s head.

  Cass pulled her hand away quickly. “Thanks for rescuing me,” she said, trying to erase the disturbing picture from her mind. “You don’t look like you belong here either.” Cristian still hadn’t admitted to knowing her, but Cass felt certain that he did. She told herself she was just being paranoid.

  “It’s that obvious, is it?” Cristian said. “This isn’t really my kind of place. I’m just here looking out for some friends of mine. Making sure they leave with at least a few coins left in their purses.”

  Before Cass could respond, Falco reappeared. Cass couldn’t help but wonder if he had been behind one of the closed doors upstairs. Once again the naked sweating bodies flashed back, but this time it was Falco being straddled by the little blonde Andriana.

  Falco’s eyes flickered when he saw Cristian. “This one is actually with me,” he said, slipping an arm around Cass’s waist.

  “Then you might want to keep a closer eye on her.” Cristian nodded curtly at Falco and turned back toward the salon.

  Looking back over his shoulder, Falco added, “They tell me she’s got special skills.” He let his hand slide even lower, onto one of Cass’s slender hips, as he directed her back out into the night.

  Cass pulled away from Falco the second the door shut and they were out of the man’s line of vision. “Special skills?” Her voice burned with acid.

  Falco grinned. “You mean you don’t?” He leaned in close and snaked both his arms around her waist. “I’m going to require a refund then.” His breath was hot against her neck.

  Cass couldn’t help it. She saw the room with the candles again, her naked body intertwined with Falco’s, the two of them so close together they were practically wearing the same skin. Her whole body went rigid at the thought.

  “Oh come on,” Falco whispered in her ear. “I was joking. Acting the part.”

  Cass softened a little bit but still pulled back from his embrace. She couldn’t think of him that way when she was angry. She shouldn’t think of him that way at all. She took a deep breath and tried to regain control of her thoughts. “And acting the part requires you to put your hands all over me? Or is that just an extra benefit?” She didn’t know if she was more angry at Falco for treating her like a common prostitute or for leaving her alone in that house full of brutes.

  Falco rolled his eyes. “Don’t flatter yourself, Cassandra. I prefer my women a little less…repressed.”

  Without thinking, Cass reached out and slapped him. Her palm connected with the side of Falco’s face with a satisfying smack. She withdrew her hand immediately, horrified at what she’d done. To her surprise, Falco started laughing.

  “That’s more like it,” he said, his blue eyes lighting up the night. He rubbed the side of his face. “I think that’s going to leave a mark.”

  “I—I’m sorry,” Cass said. A red blotch began to form across Falco’s cheekbone.

  “Don’t be. I’m sure I deserved it. If not now, then at sometime in the past.” He winked. “Or the future.”

  Cass bit her lip and dropped her eyes. She had never hit anyone in her whole life. She couldn’t believe she had just struck Falco. What was wrong with her? She looked down at her palm. The heat of the slap seemed to be coursing through her hand.

  “In any case, we wasted our time,” Falco said, still rubbing his jaw. “None of the girls are missing. None of them had even heard of a prostitute or courtesan gone missing.”

  “So we made no progress at all.” As they maneuvered down the alley again, past the dancing girls, Cass envisioned Liviana and the mysterious dead girl in the windows, their decaying corpses trussed up for the night creatures to feed upon. Then she saw herself among them, her arms and legs nailed to the stucco, bare breasts slashed and bleeding. A surge of bile filled her throat, but Cass fought back the urge to vomit. She wrapped her fingers tightly around Falco’s arm, as if he were a talisman that could protect her from evil. For all she knew, the murderer was out there in the streets, stalking her like an animal. Watching her every move. Waiting.

  “The scalpel is the ideal

  implement for slicing flesh,

  its blade expressly designed

  to penetrate ligament and

  muscle with minimal pressure,

  even down to the bone.”

  —THE BOOK OF THE ETERNAL ROSE

  ten

  So, princess.” Falco glanced sideways at Cass. She realized she was unconsciously pulling him toward the gondola. “Time to return to your satin sheets?”

  Part of Cass wanted nothing more than to wake up in bed and realize the whole crazy night had just been a dream. But she knew it was real, as real as the fading scratch on her arm. She couldn’t give up now. Not after everything she’d already gone through. She wouldn’t. “There must be other places we could check.” Dark shadows formed and dissolved in the waning light of the lanterns. Cass glanced over her shoulder. The seductive twisting of the window girls was slowing, their energy fading along with the light.

  Falco paused at the edge of the canal. “I know of a couple other houses in the area.”

  Cass was not happy about repeating the experience she’d just had, but if they could find out anything about the murdered girl, they might also learn something about the whereabouts of Liviana’s body. She watched the water ebb and flow against the stone retaining wall. Across a narrow bridge, a row of torches illuminated a line of broken-down buildings, their stucco walls stained and peeling from years
of water exposure. Heaps of trash lay strewn at the edge of the canal. A shadow moved in one of the piles. A man, hunched down, pawing like an animal.

  “Unless, of course, you’d rather give up.” Falco’s voice was light, but taunting.

  “Of course I don’t want to give up.” Cass tossed her head. “Lead the way.”

  They turned away from the sanctuary of the bobbing gondola, back toward the dancing girls. The dark-haired girl was now sitting in the window, resting her head against the frame. Falco pulled Cass beyond them, into a second, labyrinthine alley. They passed under a stone archway and stopped in front of a slick marble staircase, half overgrown by a thick web of vines. “Here is your discretion,” Falco said. “This place is one of Venice’s best-kept secrets.”

  Cass dragged a hand across the smooth marble as she allowed Falco to lead her up the stairs. She wondered again how Falco knew so much about places like these.

  Just as they reached the top of the steps, something rustled behind the vines. Cass tensed up, again wishing she had brought the kitchen knife. A tall boy wearing plain yellow breeches and a leather doublet pushed through the leaves. Cass thought he looked familiar. When he got closer, she saw his doublet was soiled with smears of paint. He was one of the boys from outside Liviana’s funeral—one of the boys who had laughed at her when Falco knocked her down. Falco let out a small exclamation of surprise. The other boy shook his head, and then, ignoring Cass, gestured for Falco to step aside and speak with him.

  Falco turned to Cass. “Wait for me here, okay?” he said. “I need to speak to Paolo.”

  Falco and the tall boy—Paolo—descended the marble staircase and stood a few feet from the house. Cass watched them for a moment, but she couldn’t make out what they were saying. All she could see were Paolo’s arms gesturing back toward the canal, his chin-length black hair swishing as he shook his head repeatedly. Cass frowned. How had Paolo found them, anyway? Had he been following them?

  The double doors in front of her were outlined in gold leaf, and each was adorned with a crest featuring a raven holding a dying serpent in its beak. Cass knew she should wait for Falco, but she couldn’t help but think she had gone from obeying Agnese’s commands to obeying Falco’s.

  She was still a prisoner, just in a different cage.

  With sudden resolve, Cass pushed open the door. She entered into a long open portego, with chairs upholstered in purple velvet and tapestries of cathedrals on the walls. Above her head, a bronze candelabra swayed slightly as the door clicked shut. A basin of rosewater sat on a pedestal in the corner of the room, perfuming the air with a light scent. Cass was momentarily startled by the prettiness of her surroundings—the place reminded her of Madalena’s palazzo.

  The room was empty except for a pair of older men in thick velvet cloaks and leather boots laced up to their knees. Golden medallions hanging over embroidered vests marked them as government officials. A girl in a pale blue gown with a square neckline and an enormous wheeled farthingale floated through the room. Her sleeves were made of a gossamer fabric, so long and flowy they reminded Cass of wings. A jeweled butterfly hair ornament held her honey-colored braids back from her face, highlighting her impossibly high cheekbones.

  Unlike Andriana, this girl didn’t touch the men in the room. She simply smiled at them as she passed. After she exited, another girl walked through, this one with wavy hair so blonde it almost looked white. The girl followed the same path as the one before, stopping just long enough to play a short melody on a wooden flute. Cass couldn’t believe how ordinary everything felt here. She might as well have been watching Madalena model the newest dresses her father had brought home from his journeys abroad. Cass tugged at her neckline again, adjusting part of her braids so they fell over her shoulders and covered some bare skin.

  Just then, a blast of cool night air ruffled Cass’s skirts as a tall stranger slipped inside. The doors thudded closed behind him. He wore thick black robes, like a priest, and a black velvet hat pulled low over his eyes.

  “Ciao bella,” he said, bending into a deep bow. “Are you here for welcoming?”

  “I’m—I’m waiting for someone,” Cass stammered. She was afraid to ask what “welcoming” involved.

  The man nodded. He grabbed her right hand with a flourish and pressed his lips to it. “I thought you looked a little more undone than the girls here. Pity. So tall and lovely.”

  Cass blushed. She lifted her skirts just high enough to expose her chopines. “It’s these shoes. I’m really not that tall.”

  The stranger’s eyes lingered on her exposed ankles. “You shouldn’t be ashamed. Are you a dancer, perhaps?”

  Cass shook her head. Madalena had taken her to a ballet performance at the Palazzo Ducale once. Impossibly thin girls jumping and twirling across the room like weightless fairies. Cass had found the spectacle mesmerizing.

  The stranger reached toward her face and Cass felt her muscles contract. His fingertips brushed the lobe of her ear and returned with a golden ducat in his hand. Cass gasped. “Are you a conjurer?” she asked.

  “Maximus the Miraculous at your service.” The man removed his hat and held it against his chest as he bowed a second time. His black hair stood up in wild spikes and curls. “And you are?”

  “Cassandra.”

  “My favorite name.” Maximus closed his fingers around the coin he had pulled from her ear. When he reopened them, his right palm was empty. He made his left hand into a fist and opened it to display three golden coins. “Apparently I’ll pay triple for your company this evening.” He made a fist again. “Or if you prefer.” He held the hand out to Cass. “Kiss it.”

  “What?” She felt a little drunk, as if the man had cast a spell on her.

  “Quickly now or you’ll ruin the magic. Kiss my hand.”

  Cass glanced around. Falco was nowhere to be seen. The two men in the salon were chatting, oblivious to the conjurer’s presence. She hurriedly brushed her lips against the strange man’s knuckles and a tiny gray songbird emerged from his hand.

  Cass gasped. The bird circled around the candelabra, perching delicately between two red candles, its head just inches from the flames. “How did you do it?”

  “A conjurer never reveals his secrets,” the man said, holding up his index finger. The bird circled the room once before landing on it, beating its wings softly.

  The white-blonde girl with the wooden flute reappeared from behind a thick velvet curtain. “Maximus,” she said, leaning in to kiss the conjurer on the cheek. “I’m afraid I have bad news for you.”

  Maximus waved a silk handkerchief over the songbird and it disappeared. “What is it?”

  The girl twirled her flute between her palms. “It’s Mariabella. She’s gone.”

  Cass felt her heartbeat speed up. So a girl had gone missing…

  The conjurer nodded. “Last time I was in the city, she mentioned she had attracted a benefactor. I assumed it was only a matter of time…” His voice trailed off. “Does she still room with you? Just down from Santa Maria del Mar, as I recall…”

  The girl laughed. “Your memory is as splendid as your magic. The doorknobs are shaped like suns. You’re welcome to go there now, but you’ll have no luck finding her. She hasn’t come home in days. Signor Dubois has been seen out in public often, but no one has seen Mariabella at his side. The man must be keeping her shackled to his bed.”

  Joseph Dubois again. He must have been a patron to the girl—to Mariabella.

  “Excuse me,” she said, trying to keep her voice from trembling. “What does Mariabella look like?”

  The girl with the flute looked at Cass as if she were seeing her for the first time. “Who are you?” she asked, her voice edged with hostility.

  Cass quickly devised a story about how she had come to the brothel to find a certain woman for her brother, who had fallen in love with her after spending the evening together. “He’s returned to his studies abroad,” Cass explained, “but I told him I would tr
y to get a message to the beauty who captured his heart last time he was in Venice.”

  The girl’s gaze lingered on Cass’s plunging neckline, as if it were factoring in to her calculations about whether or not Cass could be trusted. Behind her, one of the men wearing medallions coughed gently.

  “Excuse me,” the girl murmured, shaking her pale hair as she glided across the black and white tile floor to where the gentlemen were sitting. Moments later she led the taller of the two behind the velvet curtain, her wooden flute left behind on the divan.

  “Mariabella is divine,” Maximus said, leaning in toward Cass. “Beautiful and talented. She used to assist me in my act from time to time. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was the beauty your brother fell in love with.”

  “What did—does—she look like?” Cass asked.

  Maximus pulled a rose out of thin air. “She has silky dark hair and the most delicious set of lips.” He reached out his index finger as though to touch Cass’s lips and then seemed to think better of it. “You resemble her, in a way. Except you don’t have her birthmark.” He traced the shape of a heart in the air.

  Cass’s blood accelerated in her veins. A heart-shaped birthmark. It had to be the same girl. Mariabella. A maid missing from Joseph Dubois’s estate, and now a dead courtesan, one of his chosen companions. Could it possibly be a coincidence? Emotions churned together in her stomach—excitement and wonder and fear. And more excitement. She leaned in to give the conjurer an impulsive peck on the cheek.

  The conjurer pressed the rose into her palm. “I think your master is watching us.”

  Cass glanced up and saw Falco staring at her—no, at them—from the doorway of the portego. Cass hadn’t even heard the front doors open.

  “I see you’ve met my beautiful signorina,” Falco said, nodding to the conjurer as he snaked his fingers around one of Cass’s small wrists.

 

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