Venom, p.13

Venom, page 13

 part  #1 of  Secrets of the Eternal Rose Series

 

Venom
 



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  The conjurer winked at Cass. “Indeed. There’s something magical about her, wouldn’t you say?”

  “You’ve no idea,” Falco said. He pulled her across the room, out of the conjurer’s earshot. “Is it safe to leave you alone for a few minutes while I go speak to the owner of the house?”

  “No need,” Cass said. She couldn’t help but smile triumphantly. “I’ve not only learned the name of the dead girl, but I also know where she lives.”

  Falco arched an eyebrow. “All that, and you still found the time to bat your eyelashes at some traveling con man? That is impressive.”

  “I wasn’t batting anything,” Cass said. “I was appreciating his performance. Come on. I’ll fill you in on the way to her place.”

  As the two passed the conjurer, Falco’s grip on her was so tight, she was afraid he was going to leave a bruise. “Good-bye, Maximus,” she called behind her. “Thank you for the magic.”

  Outside the house, Falco kept his hand wrapped around Cass as they headed down the marble staircase. The tall boy in the vest was gone.

  “So who’s Paolo?” she asked, pausing at the bottom of the steps to catch her breath. The night had definitely taken a turn for the better.

  “My roommate,” Falco answered shortly.

  “Friendly,” Cass said, remembering how the boy had looked straight through her.

  “Seems to me you have no shortage of admirers,” Falco said. And then, abruptly: “You know conjurers are nothing but common criminals, right? I’d check your pockets—I wouldn’t be surprised if several coins are missing.”

  Cass’s eyes widened. “I believe I’ve heard the same about artists. And it almost sounds like…But surely it’s not in the nature of a patron of a common prostitute to be jealous.” One of her ankles wobbled, and Cass had to grab on to Falco’s waist to keep from falling over.

  Falco pushed her away playfully and then pulled her tightly to his chest. “Funny,” he whispered in her ear. “But I doubt there’s anything common about you.” He shook his dark hair back from his face. “Ready to get serious now?”

  “What do you mean, Master?” she asked, half reeling from the heat of Falco’s breath on her jawbone. A rush of warmth surged through her body.

  “You’re the one who figured out where our murdered prostitute lived,” Falco said. “Lead the way, Signorina Avogadore.” Falco linked his arm through hers.

  “Murdered courtesan,” Cass corrected. “It’s just as you thought.” Cass recounted the conversation with Maximus and the blonde girl. Falco whistled and Cass swelled with pride.

  “So,” Falco said. “To Santa Maria del Mar we go…”

  There were only two streets branching away from the little campo that housed the church of Santa Maria del Mar, and Falco and Cass found Mariabella’s house—and the signature sun-shaped doorknobs—on the first street they selected. She lived in a small pink building clustered with several others around a tiny courtyard overgrown with weeds. All the houses here looked abandoned to Cass.

  She and Falco made their way to the door, carefully avoiding a network of deep cracks in the crumbling stone walkway. The shutters hung askew, revealing dirt-encrusted glass beneath. Cass put her face to the glass but saw only a distorted reflection of herself. Falco knocked on the warped wooden door. No answer. He pulled something small and silver out of his pocket and jiggled it in the lock.

  “What’s that?” Cass whispered.

  “Scalpel.”

  Cass watched as Falco twisted the flexible blade. The razor-sharp knife reflected the light from the lantern Falco carried. Cass couldn’t stop staring at it, not even when she heard a click and the door swung open with a groan. She couldn’t help but think of the X carved in Mariabella’s chest. “Why do you carry that?” she asked. “Where did you get it?”

  “I use it for detail work when I’m painting.” Falco wrapped the blade carefully in a bit of fabric and pocketed it.

  A musty smell wafted from the open door, almost overpowering Cass. The place was decent-sized, but dingy, with a square living area leading into a single back room with tiny beds and plain wooden wardrobes pushed against two of the walls.

  The bed nearest to them was neatly made. Cass ran a hand over the burgundy coverlet and her fingers came back faintly dusty. Clearly, no one had slept here for days. Cass peered inside the wardrobe. A wooden sitar missing several strings stood in one corner. A rainbow of brightly colored dresses lay folded on warped shelves, most of the garments fraying at the wrists and hems.

  “I thought courtesans were wealthy,” Cass said. The room had a lonely, desolate feel; she could practically smell it.

  “It depends on their patrons. Perhaps she had only just tried to find work outside of the house.” Falco knelt down and peered under the dusty bed. He pulled out a royal blue silk bag with a yellow braided drawstring. As he turned the bag inside out, strands of pearls and jeweled hairpieces clattered out onto the floor. “Or maybe she was overly fond of trinkets.” Falco wrapped a strand of pearls around his hand and held it up in the faint light. Tossing the bag back under the bed, he slipped the pearls into his pocket.

  “Falco!” Cass said sharply.

  “What? It’s not like she’s going to miss it.”

  “It’s—it’s disrespectful,” Cass said. She felt a rush of pity for this dead girl, the girl who’d lived such a small, narrow life and then been cut down so young. Cass thought about how many times she had complained to Mada about her aunt’s musty old villa. How the whole place often felt just one good storm short of crumbling to dust. Compared with this room, Agnese’s home was like the Palazzo Ducale.

  Suddenly, she couldn’t wait to leave. The room seemed to be getting smaller by the minute, the walls subtly closing in on her. Living here would be like living inside her armoire. Cass knelt down on the cold stone floor, intending to reorder the jewelry Falco had scattered, and then something caught her eye.

  “Hey, look at this,” she said. A square bundle only slightly larger than her journal lay half unwrapped, concealed beneath the bed. Cass lifted the bundle and gently folded back the layers of muslin to expose a small portrait. Mariabella must have received the painting not long before she died, or else surely she would have hung it on the wall.

  Falco righted the portrait. Cass squinted, but she couldn’t make out the figure on the canvas. She brought over the lantern and held it next to the painting.

  It was her. Mariabella: the dead girl from Liviana’s crypt. Only here she looked happy, her thick hair hanging over bare shoulders, her red lips forming a playful pout. She had one of her arms extended, as if she were reaching out toward the artist. The painting was done in unusual choppy brushstrokes, giving the picture a blurred effect.

  Cass thought of the discolored corpse, the ring of bruises around the neck, purple splotches where blood had pooled. She touched a finger to the canvas, almost expecting her hand to pass straight through it into some other land where things were normal and right and Mariabella was still alive.

  “A gift from a patron?” Cass asked.

  Falco whistled long and slow. “Or a murderer, perhaps. Or both.” He pored over the painting, looking for other clues. He pointed to a thin gray squiggle of paint in the lower left corner of the canvas. “Not much of a signature.”

  Cass bent close to the canvas. “It looks like a C, or maybe an L.”

  “That doesn’t really narrow things down,” Falco said, bounding back to his feet. “There are probably five thousand registered artists in Venice, and who knows how many amateurs.”

  Cass deflated almost instantly. He was right. Even figuring out Mariabella’s identity didn’t help them much. And it was absolutely no use in determining what had happened to Liviana’s body.

  Falco reached out a hand and pulled Cass off the ground. “But as you said,” he relented, “at least it’s a start.” Cass could tell he was trying to make her feel better.

  Cass brushed her hands over her skirts to rid them of
as much dust as possible. The room was still suffocating her. “I think we’ve done enough for one night,” she said. “Will you take me home?”

  “Of course.” Falco’s voice was surprisingly gentle. He slipped an arm around her shoulders as they turned back toward the door. “Let’s get out of here.”

  They headed back over the arched bridge to Fondamenta delle Tette, where their gondola was moored. Cass was relieved to see the boat exactly where they had left it. Falco took his place on the gondolier’s platform and Cass settled into the felze, slipping off her chopines and wiggling her toes. The night air had developed a sharp edge, and she wrapped her cloak tightly around her. She turned backward in her seat and peered around the edge of the felze to watch Falco steer the gondola back toward the Grand Canal. She could almost envision the structures beneath the skin of his arms and chest and back moving in tandem. She wondered what it would be like to put her hands on him, to feel the rippling of his muscles beneath her fingertips. If only there was someplace else they could go, together. She wondered if Falco lived in a sad little room like Mariabella. She tried to imagine what sort of place he would call home, but all she could see was a dark room, with flickering candles and a mattress on the floor.

  “The women in the houses,” Cass blurted out, surprised at her brazenness. “Do they do different things?”

  Falco stopped rowing long enough to shrug. “Courtesans do many things—sing, play instruments, write poetry. The women in the houses are mostly lovers for hire, though some also work as dance partners or models.”

  Models. Of course. That’s why Falco was so well known.

  Cass felt her voice get even tighter. “And as lovers for hire, do they do different things?”

  Falco laughed. He took his hands off the oar and let the boat coast through the water. “You ask me these questions as if I have a lot of experience with lovers for hire. I have to save for weeks just to pay the modeling fees.”

  Cass couldn’t bring herself to ask what she really wanted to know, whether what she had seen in that room was normal or some aberration. The slick skin, the noises, the wildness of it all. Was that how couples behaved? Would Luca expect that from her someday? She turned away from Falco as they approached the Rialto Bridge. Burning steel cressets illuminated both ends of the structure, its middle glistening faintly under the night sky.

  “It’s so pretty in the moonlight,” she said. She had rarely seen it this way.

  “Yes, pretty in the moonlight,” Falco echoed. Cass felt his eyes burning into her back, as if he were looking only at her when he spoke. The gondola slowed to a stop and Falco tied up the boat directly beneath the bridge. The stone structure blocked out the light and the wind, making Cass feel as if she and Falco were alone in a warm, dark room.

  “Here,” he said, pulling a flask from his cloak pocket. “Celebratory libations.”

  “What are we celebrating?” she asked.

  “We set out to discover the dead girl’s identity,” Falco said. “And we did.” He pressed the slick metal container into Cass’s palm. “I say that’s progress.”

  Cass sniffed the flask warily. The liquid within smelled sharp and sour, almost chemical.

  “What is it?” she asked.

  “Some witches’ brew I found in my master’s studio. Go on, try it.” He winked. “Unless you’re afraid.”

  Cass put her lips to the flask and tipped it up just enough to let a tiny sip of liquid make its way into her mouth. She held her breath to keep from gagging. Whatever it was, it tasted awful, nothing like the tart sweetness of the burgundy wine to which she was accustomed.

  Falco took the flask back and shook it in his hand as if he were weighing it. “You didn’t even take a drink, did you?”

  “I did so.”

  Falco shook the container again. “I don’t believe you.”

  Cass leaned in toward him and blew gently in his face. “See? You can smell that ghastly poison on my breath.”

  Falco sniffed the air. “All I smell is canal water, and a hint of flowers, probably from whatever soap you use on your hair.” He put his face very close to Cass’s, reached out, and tilted her chin toward him. “Try again.”

  Her lips were mere inches from his. Cass struggled to exhale. Her chest tightened as the air trickled out of her body. She noticed a V-shaped scar beneath Falco’s right eye. She was seized by an irrational urge to touch her lips to the small imperfection. “What about now?” she asked.

  Falco brushed a spiral of hair from her freckled cheek and touched his forehead to hers. “One more time?” He closed his eyes. He reached up with one of his hands and cradled the back of her head, pulling her toward him.

  He was going to kiss her. She was going to let him. Falco’s face blurred in the darkness as he closed the distance between them.

  And then…it wasn’t Falco she was about to kiss. It was Luca. She lunged backward in her seat, causing the gondola to lurch to one side.

  Falco’s eyes snapped open. “What happened?”

  Cass had no idea what to say. “I—I thought I saw something,” she stammered out.

  Falco glanced around, as if reaffirming that it would be impossible to see anything in the blackness under the bridge. “A vampire?” His voice was thick with sarcasm.

  Cass looked away. “Forget it. You wouldn’t understand.”

  “Oh. I think I understand.” Falco turned slowly away from Cass. He dragged his fingers across the shiny black wood as he moved toward the back of the boat. “Forgive me, Signorina. I didn’t mean to overstep my station.”

  “No. I—it’s not that,” Cass said. Her heart was trembling in her chest.

  Falco didn’t answer. He vaulted over the side of the boat and headed for the steps leading up to the bridge. Cass followed him, struggling to lift her skirts over the gondola’s edge. She fumbled her way up the uneven steps, feeling the dampness of the stones seeping through the bottom of her suede shoes. Falco stood in the middle of the bridge, his forearms resting on the railing. He stared down at the water so intently that Cass thought maybe it was his turn to see murderers and poisonous serpents beneath the surface.

  But no, Falco didn’t deal in superstition.

  Cass cleared her throat. Her chest felt as though there was a giant fist around it, squeezing. “Lately I always think I’m doing the wrong thing.”

  Falco nodded, keeping his eyes locked on the water. His jaw was tight. “You should stop thinking so much. Do what feels right.”

  Cass imagined them tucked back under the bridge, Falco’s hand in her hair, his lips finding hers in the dark. She had no doubt that kissing him would have felt right. To her, but not to Luca. Not to Agnese. “How am I supposed to know what feels right?” she asked. “I was never taught to feel—just to obey. It’s suffocating. Most of the time I can barely breathe.”

  “Well, eventually you’re going to have to do what’s right for you instead of worrying about the rest of the world. Just let go. Trust yourself.” Falco turned to her at last. A smile played at his lips. “And if you can barely breathe, it’s probably because of those oppressive undergarments you wear.”

  Cass laughed. She was ridiculously, unexpectedly glad that he was not going to stay angry with her. “You’re right. I swear Siena laces them tighter every day. I sometimes wonder if she’s punishing me.”

  For a few seconds, both of them leaned on the railing of the bridge, looking down at the dark canal water. A gondola floated by beneath them. A man and woman reclined against plush pillows, kissing, barely illuminated by the dim light of a lantern. Cass felt her heart speed up again. Her breath felt heavy in her chest. “Take your cloak off,” she said quickly.

  “Trying to undress me?” Falco asked. He slid out of his cloak and looked questioningly at Cass.

  “Hold it up,” she ordered. She adjusted his hands so that the cloak shielded her, and fumbled to undo the bindings around her chest. She began to sweat as she unknotted the laces; in the dark, images of Agnese an
d Luca floated in front of her, their faces cold with disapproval.

  “You all right in there?” Falco asked. “You’re thrashing about like you’re performing a self-exorcism.”

  Cass emerged a minute later, red faced but triumphant. She waved her ivory-colored stays above her head. “Now,” she said, “I can breathe.”

  Falco plucked the fabric from her hand. He fingered it and feigned surprise. “Good Lord. What is this thing made of?” he asked. “Steel?”

  “Whalebone.” Cass clasped a hand over her mouth to stifle a yelp as Falco tossed her stays over the edge of the Rialto Bridge.

  “Consider yourself liberated,” he said. “Do you feel better?”

  Cass couldn’t respond. She couldn’t describe it, the way it felt to be able to inhale and exhale completely, like for once she was using all of her lungs. Her satin chemise curled and folded against her bare chest, giving her the sensation of being both cold and hot at the same time.

  Falco touched his forehead to hers again. His nose brushed against the side of her cheek. Cass’s heart sped up. But this time, he didn’t try to kiss her. He just held her in the dark, his mouth so close to hers that their breath mingled together like mist off the canals.

  Across the city, bells rang out. Matins. Falco stiffened. At the water’s edge, a gondolier sat up in his boat, rubbing his eyes. He muttered a curse under his breath and lay back down, covering his head with a tattered gray blanket. In the distance, Cass could see a pair of soldiers patrolling the far side of the Grand Canal, their swords reflecting the pale moonlight.

  “I have to be somewhere.” Falco wrenched away from the railing and began heading to the steps that led back to the canal.

  “Again?” Even the tavernas were closed. Cass wondered if Falco and his friends spent time at brothels. Sure he said he couldn’t afford it, but what else could he be doing so late? Gambling? Stealing?

  “I have some…business to attend to,” he said, keeping his voice light. But there was a warning edge to it.

 

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